Grade Harder? Wrong Question

This morning I read a newspaper article on the horrors of grade inflation. (Easy Grading Fails to Serve Students’ Education The idea that we need to grade with more “rigor” is rampant.  It is the motivation behind NCLB and Race to the Top.  And it certainly ties into our overly masculine, puff your chest out, win at any cost culture.  I guess my problem with it, though, is that, in terms of learning, it really doesn’t make much sense.

Let’s construct, and then deconstruct this view of “hard” grading briefly.  To construct:  The idea is that students need to be motivated and grades are the motivation.  Grades provide both positive reinforcement, good grades are the carrot, and negative reinforcement, poor grades are the stick. And if we want students to work hard to show their achievement, then the standards must be high and difficult to meet. With difficult standards, and only a small percentage able to meet them, all are motivated to work as hard as possible in order to be one of the few with high marks. The job of the teacher is to maintain that high standard in order to force students to maintain their effort. On the surface this seems to make sense.

However, when we address some of the assumptions, it begins to make absolutely no sense.

To deconstruct:

First of all, the idea of public schools functioning as a sorting mechanism is very conservative in that it serves to maintain the status quo.  Those who start with much will continue to benefit the most.  Students from highly professional backgrounds whose basic needs are met, whose parents are educated, who come from professional, high socioeconomic backgrounds have a huge head start in this view of education as a race to the top.  The fact of the matter is that these advantaged students start at the top, and will mostly like not lose this advantage over the course of their education.  Those who start at the bottom, due to poverty and/or other obstacles, are likely to stay at the bottom.  If education is, at least ostensibly, about giving everyone an equal opportunity this is certainly a move in the wrong direction.  An important point, but not the one I want to focus on here.

For the purpose of this post, I want to look more deeply into the assumptions of learning that underlie the “grade harder” approach (a corollary of the “no excuses” approach that Paul Thomas writes of).  This view assumes that learning is not something that people find valuable or important or motivating, and they therefore need to be driven by extrinsic motivators.  This is where grades come in.  They are the motivator.  The assumption is that people wouldn’t do this kind of activity unless they are driven to do so for some purpose outside of themselves, and providing this purpose is the function grades serve.  Why else would students do work sheets, read from text books designed for schools and no other actual place or purpose, sit obediently in straight rows and have their focus reduced to a person speaking at them?  Of course grades are necessary to manipulate students to do what is believed to be necessary in such an environment!

“Grade harder” misses the point of learning while it reinforces an obsolete view of schooling.

The more we need to emphasize the importance of grades, the less meaningful the work must be. 

I hope it is obvious now that  ramping up the importance of extrinsic motivators points to the need to artificially increase student motivation (might “manipulate students” be a more accurate description?)  Grades, then, function to make students do what they wouldn’t do otherwise.  Discussions about the difficulty or ease of a grading system is a distraction from the real question, which is, what the hell are we having students do in schools?

In addition, focusing on grades not only hides the question of the relevancy of the work, it damages students’ attitude towards the potential for real learning .  In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn convincingly shows 3 main problems with grades:

1. Grades tend to diminish students interest in whatever they are doing.

2. Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task

3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

(Just as relevant, read Kohn’s Confusing Harder With Better)

So, by increasing the emphasis on grades we are also exacerbating these negative effects as a direct function of the misleading idea that humans need to be coerced into learning. And we know this misleading idea simply isn’t true. When learning is relevant, when students have choices, and when there is an opportunity for mastery, there is no need for coercion. The human brain is intent upon pattern making .  Under conditions where our needs are being met, we can’t help but learn, to ask questions, to push boundaries, to tire of the old and reinvent to create the new. (If you don’t believe me, ask Dan Pink.) The traditional school view has simply stifled students, and continues to do so.

The next step is to realize that if students are doing real life, meaningful work, the issue of rigor changes substantially. If students are doing meaningful work, then they are actually trying to make some kind of difference in the world. They are trying to become creators rather than passive recipients. Students engaging their worlds in this manner don’t wonder so much about the grade they receive, rather they wonder, did my creation (project, service, etc.) have the effect I wanted it to? Did I meet my goal? Did I accomplish what I wanted to? Did my effort make a the difference in the world that I wanted it to? These are the standards that become the measure of success.

The right question is, how can we begin to shift away from an emphasis on grades as a motivator towards the work itself as a motivator?  How do we involve kids in real life, meaningful work, work that they will do even without a grade?  (And the challenge for the group of teachers I work with is exactly this-  Are we engaged with students in such a way that they are involved in work that they would choose to do even if there weren’t grades?)

For starters, see the work of Ron Berger

Joe Bower does a fantastic job of diving deeply into the  of grades  here.

For a transition into this, start with David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole

This article is about an alternative school in Seattle that is working to knock down the walls of school in order to access the world.

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