What if we treated grades like leveling up?

So I was responding to comment on this blog about student retention, and the person used the word "level" and it made me think of "leveling up" which is this process by which your fantasy character becomes more powerful as a result of the experience they gained. This video below describes the process of leveling up in World of Warcraft (an online fantasy role-playing game). I also remember reading about a professor who was planning on giving experience points for assignments rather than grades.

The thought I had here is, grades on assessments are the "experience points" our students gain, and their school grade (K to 12 in the US & Canadian systems) is their "level." Experience points become a measure of how much your fantasy characters have learned over time, and when you have learned enough, your character gets promoted. As your fantasy character gains levels, they gain abilities, much in the same way students gain skills & mastery of content.

I think this simplistic view of how school works is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, many assessment students do, particularly under assessment of learning systems (as opposed to assessment for learning) are not learning activities, so the idea of applying experience points breaks down here. They simply aren’t gaining experience from the activities in a nice smooth linear fashion. The second reason is that what students are capable of doing does not come in nice neat quanta as suggested by the metaphor of levels. Instead students are complex organisms which grow and develop over time. There may be times when they make leaps and bounds, but really their development comes in small incremental changes, rather than suddenly gaining new capabilities.

So if you buy my argument from my previous paragraph, now our concept of traditional grade levels becomes a bit questionable. We treat students like they are capable of more in 8th grade than they were in 7th grade. How many times have you heard yourself saying "now you are in 12th grade, you shouldn’t act like that!" Our current school system makes hardly any allowances for students who are at different points along the learning continuum. Instead we treat students almost exactly like my analogy.

Retaining students, or complaining of social promotion are just symptoms of a larger problem. We need to stop grouping students by their perceived "experience point level" and start grouping them by what they skills they have mastered.




  • I totally agree with the problem of how we group kids by age. Parents assume that split classes are a bad thing, but they’re only “bad” if teachers focus on curriculum not kids. A split class (or even better – a multi-age class) breeds more of a focus on “big ideas” and essential skills, not al ong list of LO’s

    The question is – how do I as an elementary Principal make that jump?

  • David Wees wrote:

    It’s an interesting problem, but one that has been solved before. We used to have split classes & very multi-age group classes in the past so we should look to see what this model did that was successful.

    I went to a presentation by Alan November who told us a very interesting anecdote.

    He spoke of a teacher in a one room school house he visited. The teacher had students from many different grades in her school, I think even all the way from K to 12. Anyway, she prepared to teach the 3rd grade students a math lesson but before she did, she told her 1st and 2nd grade students NOT to listen to the lesson under any circumstance because "it was too hard." Of course, as she taught the 3rd graders, all of the 1st and 2nd grade students listened carefully. When she was done the lesson, she asked if anyone had any questions and all of the hands of the 1st and 2nd graders shot up. She carefully answered all of their questions, knowing that meant they would be better prepared for the material later.

    He also said he saw students teaching and supporting each other much more. The 12th grade students were practically teaching assistants for the younger students so everyone in the room had enough help.

    The trick is that a split grade classroom won’t necessarily work because the 7th grade students won’t be that much help for the 6th grade students. Instead you want an even wider age range gap between the students so that there is always a team of older students around to help the younger students. With the greatly increased support from the 12th grade students the younger students have a much better chance of understanding all of the material so that as they go through the grades, they can pick up skills more easily and more quickly.

    According to Alan he said that the single most successful school model in the US is still the one room school house. 

    I think if you also factored in the ability to add some technology to this classroom so that they are connected to many other classrooms and to as much information as they want, you’d find the kids would be very successful.

    See our assumption is that it’s a "waste of the 12th grade student’s time" when they are helping the younger students because they will lack the university level foundational skills they need. The thing is that our current system builds in a tonne of repetition of content and skills from grade to grade because students forget stuff and need to be reminded as they advance. In effect, we’ve built in safety nets to compensate for a lack of instructional support. If we put the instructional support, the safety nets of repetitive content would be much less necessary, and the 12th grade students would have already seen the "college level" stuff earlier in their educational career.

    I’m theorizing here of course. I went to a very small school, but we were from K to 6 and our teachers essentially separated us into small classes instead of using the skills we had developed to help the younger students. I think this was a mistake though, and the multi-age classroom would be much more successful.

    The best part is, you can now forget about individual grade levels at all, and just keep track of the skills the students are developing. Once the grade levels are gone, you can see the progression of learning as more non-linear, and you don’t get fooled into thinking that students who are 8 years old are suddenly way more competent than students who are 7 years old.

    In your current circumstance, I’d recommend trying to build a partnership with a neighbouring middle or high school. Don’t bring in just the strong students to do peer tutoring, bring all of the students whether they are academically strong or not. Build buddy systems between the two schools. I think you would see the skills of the younger students improve (although they might also learn some bad habits…) AND you’d see less of the older students drop out because they’d see a purpose to school (the weaker of those students would also get some more practice in skills they missed the first time around…).

    Does this make any sense? Or am being silly?

  • Someone told me the other day that one of the advances in education from its initial starts to today is the fact that we went from a single room school to separate classrooms for each grade and sometimes in high school even subject … how wrong!!

    I love the story from Alan … people need to hear stories like this to realize they can be wrong when making assumptions about various “advances” and accepting perceived “benefits” without questioning or proof!


Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *