My school is currently pushing through the concepts of a growth mindset, especially on our Year 7 cohort and at the same time, we are continuing to use levels (this will change shortly). This combination of items has got me wondering about the effect of grading and levelling on student mindsets in my classroom.
It started with a group of spirited Year 9s – they turned up to my class following a Maths lesson and one student very excitedly said that she had received a level 7a in Maths. She was, understandably, very pleased with this result; however her friend, who looked decidedly less cheery, admitted that she “only got a 5b”. Feeling inquisitive at the time (and having strong views on the use of levels and sub-levels), I asked the students what this actually meant about their understanding of Maths and neither of them could really tell me, only that they knew 7a was good at 5b was less good.
This represents the crux of my fundamental issues with the old national curriculum levels and many of the alternatives that schools have developed – many of the levelling systems compare students to each other or against some arbitrary target such as progress towards a certain grade at GCSE. Whilst these sorts of levels are great for tracking and management, they are less positive for student learning. That student was celebrating their received level without any understanding of the context of what they had achieved.
I have, so far this year, refused to give any levels to my Music students because I believe that, especially in Music, a grade at KS3 can have a highly detrimental effect on the students’ mindsets. Upon receiving a level or grade, students are forced to compare themselves either to their other subjects or to others in the class. They do not have a full understanding of what the level means so do their best to understand it by deciding what is good and what is bad. The fact that they are on a 5b in Music, but have a 7a in Maths makes them think that they are good at Maths and not very good at Music, which may hold some truth in that they are better at Maths than Music at the moment, but does not show the whole picture.
For students to adopt a growth mindset, they need to understand progress and levels or grades which compare to other students are not going to allow this. As soon as a student can turn to the person next to them and see that they have a higher “grade”, the student is going to think that they are inferior and this has a negative impact on mindset. We need to find a way that avoids comparison of achievement and focuses on progress. I would like to see more schools experimenting with the idea of individual progress – measuring a student’s progress from the beginning of Year 7 and scoring accordingly. That way it does not matter where the student is at currently, but only that they have made progress from their starting point.
Think about the impact this would have on low achieving students – rather than tell them that they are a level 5 or on track to get an E at GCSE, tell them that in the past year, they have made x amount of progress. You can praise the fact that they have improved their understanding and have persevered and developed. It would also push students (and teachers) at the top end to ensure that progress is being made, where actual progress can stagnate in the face of high grades. Students could celebrate their progress without worrying about their starting point and it would encourage students to improve.
Furthermore, Ofsted and the government are tracking pupil progress more than they are attainment, so why should we track our students in any different way?
The problem with this method is that it is more difficult to monitor the data and would require a secure system of collection but one does have to think – do we really value our data more than the positive mindsets of our students. I would like to think that we do not; however current systems may suggest otherwise.