CSL: What really matters?

Last week my colleague and friend Carolyn Durley gave a powerful “ED-Drop” (InnovateED’s version of an ignite talk) around “What really matters?”. This caused me to reflect on what really matters when it comes to communicating student learning and examine what the focus has been thus far into the journey.

What really matters iceberg

A Principal in our district recently used the iceberg metaphor, a metaphor that is no stranger to educational contexts, to share his thoughts on how communicating student learning has been received and adopted. In this metaphor, things like “going gradeless”, strength-based scales, and revamped report cards would be above the waterline. These are the parts that have been getting all the attention. These are the topics of staff meetings, parent nights, and countless inquiries as we wrestle for understanding. Beneath the surface, to reference Carolyn, would be what really matters. My take on what really matters in terms of CSL is our district’s criteria for quality communication of student learning (see below). This part beneath the surface is the part that is supported by John Hattie’s meta-analysis research, that addresses the OECD Principles of Learning, and ultimately transforms learning. I have not seen a better document that articulates and helps guide our way when it comes to CSL, yet these parts that are above the surface have stolen the show even though they are nowhere to be found in our guiding document.

Interim CSL Policy_Page_2

I want to address the following three parts that sit above the waterline:

“Going gradeless”

  • “Are you going gradeless?” “Ya, you?” “Of course, grades just don’t do a justice for the learning that is taking place in the classroom.” I have heard versions of this conversation countless times over the last two years and everytime they make me happy. These conversations make me happy because the culture among educators is shifting as we realize letter grades do not tell the whole learning story. They do not describe a learners growth over time, they are vague, and among many other limitations they no not provide feedback for future growth. “Nice, I am going gradeless too. We’re using a strength-based scale, its way better.” Hmmmmm…is it?


  • Last fall I wrote a post called “Grades in Costume” where I advocated for an approach that is scaleless, where scales are not needed for comparative purposes. Roughly two weeks ago I had the great fortune to be in a meeting with one of the world’s great minds in assessment: Anne Davies. I seized the opportunity to ask Anne all of my “elephant in the room” provocative questions. To the question “Do strength-based scales make any difference?”, her answer was no. She confirmed that any scale, whether is be letter grades or percent, flowers beginning to flourish, swimmers getting increasingly deeper in the water, or bridges being constructed, all lead to the same outcome: comparisons with others (not to oneself), they lack description, and they do not provide information on strengths and next steps.

Revamped report cards

  • I was having a discussion years ago via Twitter with Ian Landy who said “we have been trying to develop the perfect report card for the last 100 years, perhaps we should focus our attention elsewhere.” YES! I love that some of the report card prototypes from across the province better capture the essence of the redesigned curriculum, I love that they articulate not just what our learners know but also what they can do and understand, and I am sure there are other notable attributes. I also understand that in our current climate there is a need for these formal periodic updates to be sent home. My point is that I recommend we do not beat ourselves up trying to get report cards just right, they will never be. What really matters happens outside of these documents.

While I can be critical of these ideas that are above the waterline, there is no doubt that they all have value. They are leading to educators, learners, and communities having rich discussion around assessment that just wasn’t happening before. I am constantly checking my thinking and realizing that this is helping us grow albeit in a roundabout way.  To go back to the Principal I referenced earlier, his vision was to attend to the tip of the iceberg in a fashion that was thorough yet quick. Do what is necessary above the waterline, but spend most of our time below, where we get messy with the criteria for quality communication of student learning and transform learning.


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