Crossroads of Humanity

Sep 22, 2013

Grades or no grades, that is the question!

I bet when you think of school, you think of desks in straight rows, homework and grades, among other things. I am a teacher, and I do not believe that any of that makes for a high quality learning environment.

Oh, sometimes desks in straight rows fits the bill, as in a college level, lecture style environment or when a guest speaker is present. Straight rows work especially well for choir, orchestra and band too. However, they do not work well as a staple of any preschool or elementary level classroom. Come middle school, straight rows of desks work well more often, but still are not ideal for the majority of the students' day. It is my belief that the environment must be adaptable so that students can easily work in small groups, alone, or in a large group as is best suited to any particular lesson or follow-up work.

In my opinion, homework is rarely beneficial. In my Montessori class, students receive assignments that are based upon the lessons they receive. Throughout the day, they are called to small group lessons, and when not in a lesson, they have time to work on their follow-up assignments or to do any other work that interests them. Montessori classrooms have a lot of hands-on materials on the shelves for students to choose from during work time. At the end of each day, all of the students sit down and take a look at our large laminated class planner and make sure their individual planners are up to date. If they've been using work time appropriately, they will rarely have homework. If students misuse their work time, or if they have been absent and need to catch up, they may have work that will need to be finished outside of school.

Grades... I have had a problem with the idea of grades ever since my first year of teaching. No, wait. It really started before that, when I was in my upper level teaching classes during undergrad. That is when I realized that my grades actually went up when I stopped focusing on them and instead focused only on what I was learning. However, my first year of teaching, I quickly noticed something I will share with you now. Although a good grade, an A does not always mean the same thing on every report card. Nor does a C necessarily indicate a student's capabilities. Grades really have little to no meaning. Really...let me explain.

Lisa is a natural at math. She catches on quickly and retains new concepts with ease. She certainly deserves the A she receives on her report card. Tommy works his hardest trying to understand the concepts he is being taught. He keeps up with the work and gets outside help from a tutor. His skills improve tremendously, and when grading time rolls around, he is deserving of the A he receives on his report card. Two A's. It is my belief that they do not mean the same thing. Now let's look at Cecily. She could easily do the math. Like Lisa, she understands and retains the concepts with ease, but she has a hectic schedule outside of school and rarely completes her assignments. She squeaks by with a C. However, that does not represent her skills, and her 100% scores on her exams and in class work show her teacher how gifted she is. Still, the C stands.

When I switched from traditional education to Montessori, I was thrilled that there were no "grades," not in the typical sense anyway. Students still do work. In fact, they do a tremendous amount of work. The beauty of the system is because teachers call small groups of students at a time while the rest of the class has open work time (choices within boundaries and freedom with responsibility) those who need repetition receive it and those who can move ahead have the chance to soar as far as they are able. Are students assessed? You bet they are! Every time I meet with a small group, I assess the students quickly before we move ahead to the next lesson. Periodically, students receive more rigorous assessments, and they even have standardized tests three times per year. Their parents receive report cards too. The report cards give the parents a comprehensive list of what lessons and skills their child has been introduced to, is working on, and has mastered. That's much more helpful than a letter to represent an entire subject area. Finally, with no grades, students aren't allowed to slack. If they finish an assignment, and their work is of poor quality or inaccurate, they don't get a poor grade and move on, instead they do it again and again until it's done well.

So...grades or no grades? Which do you think is better?

What makes a Montessori education so special? And how do students in Montessori schools fair when compared with students in other school systems? I have not done the research, but others have.

Montessori Method vs. Traditional Education

Montessori Education Provides Better Outcomes Than Traditional Methods, Study Finds

Comparison of Academic Achievement Between Montessori and Traditional Education Programs

In addition to being a Montessori teacher, S.L. Wallace is the author of the Reliance on Citizens trilogy and Retrospection.


  1. Montessori has long fascinated me because it seems to engage the individual more and tweak interests instead of allowing the class to bumble along at the pace of either it's slowest member or maybe it's fastest leaving the others behind.
    It also seemed that there was a much more relaxed classroom atmosphere placing the onus to achieve on the child rather than the teacher to push facts at them. Allowing the use of reference books meant children became accustomed to finding things rather than learning by rote and working in small groups meant that the students helped each other more.
    I'd love to see league table showing the different achievements between Montessori and standard schools.

    1. I love your comments. They're always so insightful. Just as a FB comment inspired me to write this post, a comment you've made makes me want to find more. I've read studies comparing and contrasting the achievements of students in traditional schools versus Montessori schools. After school today, I'll try to locate some and add the links to my post.