School With No Grades

Suzanne  -  Oct 15, 2012  -  , ,  - 

Chief Matthews Elementary School, Haida Gwaii

Chief Matthews Elementary School in Masset, B.C., is going above and beyond the cultures-and-traditions approach to Aboriginal education. The band-operated school, which is on the main island of Haida Gwaii in Haida Nation territory, has done away with grades.

Chief Matthews, which serves students from Kindergarten to Grade 4, offers clam digging, berry picking, deer hunting, and Haida music and dance as part of its curriculum. Schools across Canada are offering instruction on Aboriginal culture and traditions, or infusing the provincial curriculum with Aboriginal perspectives, in an attempt to make education culturally relevant and responsive. What sets Chief Matthews apart is its unique approach to instruction and ongoing assessment: instead of grouping students into grades by age, they’re grouped into Reading, Writing, and Mathematics classes based on skill level and tracked on a weekly basis.

According to principal Leslie Bellis, “If they fall behind even in one week, we immediately catch it and go back and reinforce that lesson.” In other words: the school doesn’t wait until test time, and it doesn’t pile up a stack of evaluations to justify a mark on a report card. The school starts where the student is – at the student’s skill level, not where the student is “supposed” to be given his or her age – and teachers work with that child on an ongoing basis to make sure the child keeps improving.

Haida Gwaii

Most schools group children together by age simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. During the Industrial Revolution, when schooling was invented – to train the next generation of workers – schools were created on a factory model. In order to manage resources, administrators needed to know how many teachers they needed to hire and how much classroom space was required. Grouping students by age makes those numbers predictable.

Every teacher knows that students learn at different speeds and in different ways. But the Chief Matthews model is more than differentiated instruction: because students are grouped by ability and assessed weekly, they don’t move on until they’ve mastered the content. They move on when they’re ready, which means they feel capable and confident. This makes learning fun and worthwhile, rather than a chore.

According to Bellis, the Grade 4 students at Chief Matthews have “excellent [standardized test] scores” and “a smooth transition to the public school system.” This is simply not the case in other provinces, where Aboriginal and other students are expected to conform to the system, judged as “lower” in achievement when that system does not work for them, and then face layer upon layer of new challenges in every grade as they move through that system.

According to the Globe and Mail, public-school enrollment in Masset is falling. Meanwhile, Chief Matthews Elementary School has a waiting list.

Read a Globe and Mail article on Chief Matthews Elementary School here.

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