To Grade or Not to Grade Genius Hour

I recently received the following email from a parent:

Dear Dr. Haiken,
I wanted to send you an email regarding the substantial Genius Project just completed this semester.  The project assigned was very ambitious, and very welcomed by XXXX. She jumped at the opportunity to delve independently into a task of her interest and choosing.  This was not an easy task; it was one that required tremendous planning and tenacity. I must admit that, at first, I was wary of the ambitious project XXXX envisioned, but she rose to the occasion. She made a timeline, sketched (and re-sketched) the designs . . .  She documented her work all along the way, and created the trifold board presentation and brought it to school along with all of her finished designs–and all on time!

I attended the parents reception and saw that a wide variety of projects were presented with varying degrees of difficulty. While I understand that it is a difficult task to grade projects of varying scope, I do not think that it is fair not to grade them at all when some of the students dedicated so much time, energy and passion to the assignment. I think that XXXX’s grade should reflect the high caliber of her work.  I am sympathetic to the grading challenge this project presents, but it was assigned, and XXXX’s GPA should be indicative of a wonderful project completed. As a teacher, you rightly encouraged the students to reach for more, and I applaud you for doing so and for stepping outside the box.  Those who responded and took on the challenge should be recognized and rewarded.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Is a grade a reward? Does everything completed in school have to have a letter or numerical grade? What does a grade really show and mean to teachers, parents, and students?

These are questions that I have been thinking about over and over again as I rethink another school year. I decided not to grade my students’ genius hour projects this semester. Genius Hour is about allowing students to take learning in their own hands and as I wrote back to this parent, The genius hour project is a project that lets students make choices and take the lead in their own learning.  Not everything that students complete in school is nor should be graded with a number or letter.  The purpose of the genius hour project is for students to excel in an area of personal interest without the fear of failure.

I do have my students complete self reflections and plan out monthly goals for their genius hour project. I do not grade these items either, but these reflections and plans help me to support my students in their genius hour quest.  I have yet to have a student tell me they are disappointed that their project is not being graded. Rather, I want to encourage students to pursue their passions, accept challenges and failures, and at the same time be motivated by personal interests rather than a stamp, sticker, check mark, letter or number.

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2 thoughts on “To Grade or Not to Grade Genius Hour

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    Oh, this is WONDERFUL to spark discussion!!

    Here are my thoughts: Parents need to read PUNISHED BY REWARDS from Alfie Kohn. I think we need to continue to talk with parents BEFORE things happen – prep them for the “no grades for Genius Hour,” and tell them why – multiple times. I’ll bet XXXX received far more intrinsic motivation for doing this project than a grade could ever give her. I wonder… did her parent’s thoughts affect her, or was it the other way around? I wonder if XXXX is the one that wanted the grade to begin with?? It doesn’t sound like that. Either way, I think much of our job when we give our students time such as Genius Hour / 20% Time, etc., is to inform the parents of the myriad reasons we are spending this time inside and outside of class. They are valuable discussions to be had.

    Here are my husband’s thoughts, since I shared this email with him – he is a retired skill trade mechanic: Where do you stop? When do people stop getting grades for things they do? Isn’t the prize in the effort / in what you learned instead of the grade? In real life, when you do something, the accolades are in succeeding, not in getting the “A” from your boss – you do what needs to be done.

  2. kwhobbes says:

    I agree with Joy that it’s important to tell parents about the process and continue to do this. Having worked in two school divisions that have moved away from % and letter grades from K – 8 to an outcome based approach, helping parents understand the learning is not in the grade but in the process is something that takes time with continual dialogue which would evolve over time as parents began to see the benefits. Incorporating ePortfolios and changing to Student Led Conferences also helped to change the discussions that were taking place. Not all parents were in agreement but it did allow for an open dialogue about learning, which was so important as it moved the discussion away from assessment.

    In a world that indeed does have plenty of reward systems, intrinsic motivation is only just beginning to be something that is a being discussed in the world of work. How many people settle for “a job” instead of following and pursuing their passions or give up on their dreams in order to get a secure job? How many others have no dreams because of their current situation? Many parents are still wanting their students to get good grades to get a good post-secondary education to get a good job so they can be happy?

    I have used something similar for a while, I called it an anchor activity, which was a topic that the student wanted to investigate and learn about. Because I taught social studies, I used the latitude of the subject to allow students to investigate something they were really interested in. I did provide feedback – mostly formative – and then we negotiated a mark based on the work they did and their final presentation. Having spent many years running my own company, this was similar to how things sometimes worked when I provided a service to someone when there were many unknowns that couldn’t be built into the framework of an estimate upfront.

    I applaud your use of genius hour and only hope that, over time, we can move all reporting to one that is reflective of a student’s body of work over time and will allow for that body of work to move with them through school and beyond.

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