Numerical grade vs descriptive assessment. Maybe we need to “disarm” evaluation and involve students more. Our interview with Maurizio Parodi

With Maurizio Parodi, former head teacher and founder of the “No more homework” movement, we talk about the topic of the moment and the clash between defenders of numerical voting and supporters of formative and descriptive evaluation.

Parodi, in your opinion, what is wrong with the way in which the problem of evaluation is tackled?

The prevailing docimological culture gives scientific depth, as well as pedagogical value, to the unilateral judgment of the teacher, enhancing its diagnostic value which is expressed in the administration of verification tests, in the compilation of evaluation forms, in the formulation of judgments, in actions, that is, aimed at intervening “on” the student, without ever ascertaining the adequacy of the school context, the validity of the pedagogical model, the quality of the teaching process, the goodness of the educational relationship.

Explain yourself better

In my opinion it is not tolerable that a teacher indulges in forms of evaluation of pupils that are offensive to the dignity or diversity of the individual, those that express, more or less explicitly, more or less subtly, judgments about the person through public reproach, disrespectful comments or the terrorist use of the vote, but also with recourse to degrading forms of correction, starting from certain “signs” full of symbolic violence, up to the punitive repetition of the exact formula – one can even recognize a certain (perverse) pleasure from part of some teachers in reprimanding the student for every mistake, stigmatizing their shortcomings, as evidenced by notes, comments, more or less contemptuous corrections easily available in notebooks and verification cards.

You say that evaluation must be “disarmed”; what does it mean?

The school must “disarm” above all with respect to evaluation, stop using the vote, as a “weapon” (often “improper” and often lethal, in the sense of school mortality), against students, amending the practice , where necessary, by the elements of arbitrariness that make it the main instrument of a power exercised even abusively, with a clear vexatious intent, and even accompanied by the complacent ostentation of harmful discretion.

But what do you prefer between a numerical vote and a descriptive judgement?

There is no doubt that the evaluation expressed (and imprinted) by a number eloquently signifies the aridity of a system that denies its educational task, but it must also be said that the “descriptive judgments”, while appreciable in the intentions of those who deserve to proposes as an alternative to the numerical grade, they do not change the disciplinary, and often punitive, nature of school evaluation, imprinted in the heads of teachers, students and parents and in the deepest and most indestructible logic of the “apparatus”.

What are, in your opinion, the structural limits of the numerical vote?

There are many, for example the vote is measured and brutally placed on the steps of a ladder, therefore in a precise hierarchy: there are those who are above and those who are below; thus the student is driven to compete to assert his superiority but not to cooperate for a common purpose.

However, there are those who say that the vote is clear, because everyone knows what a 4, 6 or 9 means…

In truth, it seems to me that voting annuls specificities, deleting personal traits and standardizing “profiles”: it is very convenient, but also too simplistic, to catalog and register in the same way as an inanimate object (height, width, weight, color, etc.); the human being is by nature immeasurable.

But the grade, many say, is motivating for the student

I would say absolutely not, in reality the vote enhances the perverse logic of the prize, gets used to the idea that the commitment should be motivated not by pleasure, interest, passion, but by the drugged desire for the reward, or from fear, often from terror, of punishment, in a spiral of narrow-minded Pavlovian flavor.

We come to a central question, but what should the school evaluate?

We should probably appreciate critical ability, autonomy of action and judgement, initiative, the exercise of divergent, creative thinking, the ability to work with others for the realization of common projects.

Why did you use the conditional? Do you think that in fact things are different?

It seems to me that today, for the most part, schools support and reward obedience (which according to Lorenzo Milani “is no longer a virtue”) by enhancing the learner’s willingness to follow orders and carry out the tasks assigned to him, without necessarily understand the reasons.
Patience is then rewarded, i.e. the habitual disposition for composure and tolerance especially in human and social relationships, but above all the ability to meekly wait, preferably in silence, one’s turn, the next task (when one finishes before the others), the ringing of the bell, the explanation requested, adulthood and with it the reward of one’s hard work, often incomprehensible.
And then, there is still the idea that discipline should be rewarded, understood as full observance of the established rules, it doesn’t matter by whom or why.

What should be done to radically change the way of evaluating?

An important and decisive practice could be to share with the pupils the assessment of knowledge and skills, but also of learning processes, of the effectiveness of the teaching action, explaining and, where possible, discussing, agreeing on criteria and tools, with the double result of soliciting greater attention, if not direct commitment, on the part of the students, and of limiting its arbitrary, humoral not to say ideological exercise (and the suspicion, not always unfounded, that it is entrusted with the fate schooling of many children).

From time to time there are intellectuals, men of culture, columnists who intervene on the theme of evaluation.
Was there one that particularly struck you?

A few years ago, twenty French intellectuals, including the writer Daniel Pennac, signed an appeal for the abolition of grades in primary school proposed by an association that supports pupils in difficulty thanks to student volunteering: «I much prefer the mutual aid – Pennac said – to the fracture that occurs when the votes trigger the competition». The document underlined how comparative assessment creates anxiety and stress in children, repeatedly stigmatizing the insufficiencies of the less able who too often end up in the painful spiral of school failure.

Numerical grade vs descriptive assessment. Maybe we need to “disarm” evaluation and involve students more. Our interview with Maurizio Parodi