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Should We Grade 21st-Century Skills?: #HackingPBL

Posted by on in Inquiry-Based Learning
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Last week I participated in the EdLeader21 conference in Denver, Colorado (highly recommended). Two of my highlights were Jay McTighe’s (@jaymctighe) two sessions – one on curriculum design and the other on project based learning – and a closing session on design thinking by two members of Stanford’s d.school.

Throughout the conference (and also during much of this year’s in-district professional development), the primary theme that served as the basis for all of the work was the 4Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. In fact, the EdLeader 21 website sells 4Cs rubrics (free for members), and Jay McTighe’s latest book (which I purchased after watching him present, but have yet to fully read) also contains rubrics for these skills.

Should these skills be graded?

First, let’s keep in mind there is a difference between assessment and grading. Whereas the goal of assessment is to improve student learning, grading (or a grade) is generally used to evaluate current level of performance. And, I don’t think anyone would necessarily argue against assessing these skills, at least within the context of learning experiences.

So, back to the question at hand…

When I initially sat down to write this piece, my answer was a definitive “No!” However, upon further thinking, any well-designed project based learning experience (and many activities/assignments) will naturally require students to engage in all 4Cs, with the possible exception of collaboration if students are to work alone: critical thinking when students investigate higher-order questions, communication when students explain processes and decisions, collaboration as students rely on each other’s strengths, and creativity through opportunities for student choice…Therefore, if/when grading takes place, students’ abilities to navigate the 4Cs contribute to their grades in one way or another.

So, I’m thinking the better question is whether or not these skills should be graded in isolation.

Daniel Pink on Motivation

Pause for a second and watch this Daniel Pink TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, which is based on his book, Drive. Or, if you are in a rush, just watch from 1 minute 30 seconds to about the 7-minute mark. And, if you really don’t want to watch the video, here is the take-home point for this segment:

If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that's why they work in so many cases…But for the real candle problem [a problem that requires creative problem solving], you don't want to be looking like this [tunnel vision]. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility.

Pink also makes it clear this experiment is not the exception to the rule: “What's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over again for nearly 40 years.” Finally, Pink goes on to discuss what truly motivate us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. (And this body of work is partially responsible for directions in education that include student voice and choice, Genius Hour, 20 Percent Time, Passion Projects, etc.)

Should these skills be graded in isolation?

Critical Thinking and Creativity

In short, in regards to critical thinking and creativity, the answer is a resounding “No!” especially since the research (see above) tells us “carroting and sticking” these types of skills isn’t just ineffective, but detrimental.   

Throughout my career I have seen many instances in which teachers, including myself, took a polished rubric and then tacked on critical thinking and/or creativity as their own separate categories. In my opinion…When we grade critical thinking and creativity in isolation, we send the message these skills function independently, as opposed to being part of a process that leads to a deeper understanding of content.

If critical thinking and creativity don’t have to be exercised to successfully complete a project, the problem lies with the project itself.  


As a fourth grade teacher, I was also guilty of leveraging collaboration as a rubric add-on. In many instances, this portion of my rubric read, “I was the best teammate that I could be, and I continuously contributed to the project throughout its creation!” Moreso than critical thinking and creativity, I could be sold on collaboration being graded in isolation, but two questions come to mind: How can it be graded objectively? If it is being graded, how is it being taught and how is continuous feedback being provided?

Now, looking at this situation from an adult’s perspective…If my job evaluation were to include something like “Collaborates well with others,” would I somehow become a better collaborator knowing I’m being evaluated (graded)? What if I’m someone who has struggled with collaboration my entire life? In this instance, what will move me forward is explicit instruction and feedback, as previously mentioned.


Merriam-Webster defines communication as “the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc., to someone else.” Within the context of school, communication generally relates to students’ abilities to clearly convey questions, thoughts, concerns, and/or what has been learned.

Regarding project based learning, communication routinely takes place when students present their finished products, while also discussing the processes that got them there. As these presentations take place, students are able to practice and refine their public speaking skills and possibly their presentation design techniques.

Far more than the other Cs, I do think communication (the presentations themselves) should be graded. However, once again: How can it be graded objectively? If it is being graded, how is it being taught and how is continuous feedback being provided?...Finally, to avoid what Tom Guskey (@tguskey) refers to as “hodgepodge grading,” we need to make sure this grade is reported separately from those that relate to content. Multiple grades combined into one obscure students’ strengths and weaknesses.

In the End

In the end, in my opinion, not all Cs are created equal. While I believe critical thinking and creativity should not be graded in isolation, I could be sold on the other two, especially communication.

But, if we are serious about moving students forward (and opposed to trying to hold them accountable for their learning), feedback is the answer; feedback is always the answer.

As Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli2) tells us, “Students can learn without grades, but they can't learn without timely, descriptive, feedback.”

What are your thoughts on grading 21st century skills? Are all Cs created equal?


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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Friday, 15 February 2019