Monday, April 7, 2014

Grades Gotta Go! (Part 4: "Purpose-Driven Grading")

The next issue with most grading systems is mis-using grades to achieve the wrong purpose. As you can tell, these issues with grading are all interrelated. The focus of today's topic deals directly with the question of why we use grades at all. What I find is that the purposes of grades tend to fall into one of two categories:

Produce a behavior (compliance) 


Reflect mastery/provide feedback (learning)

Many teachers argue that grades should actually do both of the above, especially depending on the age of the learner. Commonly, some teachers and parents will suggest that students need grades to help them gain the value of learning until they later develop the intrinsic motivation to appreciate it on their own without these extrinsic "prompts" (grades).

First of all, this mindset plainly ignores what we know about motivation. It, yet again, is also one of the areas where many people would see the obvious fallacy in this position if they would just step outside of the world of institutional education for a moment. Let's imagine a parent saying, "I am trying to get my child to learn the value of eating healthy snacks instead of candy by repeatedly giving them pieces of chocolate.", or "We would like to get the employees in our company to see the value of the work they do just for the sake of the creativity and joy it provides them, so we will start paying bonuses for new ideas until they appreciate that it isn't about the financial gain of designing new products." 

As absurd as this reasoning sounds, it is the same with grading policies. To be blunt, the idea of making people dependent upon a device to prove that it will help people get to a place where they can function better without that very device is just as dumb as it sounds. And that is coming from a person who used to apply that silly mindset wholeheartedly in my former teaching days.

Secondly, there is no evidence to show it motivates learning even inside the public school system. Kindergartners in public schools and children in Montessori schools (or similar systems) demonstrate an enormous enthusiasm for learning without the "reward" or "punishment" of a grade being constantly put before them. This reality is so apparent, in fact, that my school district has a "backpack vision" (picture a child with a backpack on walking into school for the first time): We want students to exit (graduate) our system with the same passion for learning that they had when they entered our system, without economics determining success. The axiom at work here is that children naturally WANT to learn before they ever encounter a grading system! 

Are we going to say that they are mature enough to understand the intrinsic value or "deeper appreciation" of learning at age 5 more than middle school or high school students? The entire line of reasoning here defies any sense of what is developmentally appropriate.

Here's the catch, though. The biggest problem with this misconception about grading is that it does indeed APPEAR to work. Of course, if you ratchet up the short-term external consequences (positive or negative) - and that is what grades are, consequences, then you will naturally see an increase in short-term compliance. This is why so many people think it is justified to use grades to produce a behavior, whether it be completing homework, turning things in on time, having an organized binder, coming to class prepared, getting a form signed by parents, attempting bonus problems, etc. (the list is endless of what we "bribe" kids to do).

Truth be told, there are appropriate times for extrinsic motivation. The problem with using grades in this way is that it could, in fact, actually have a detrimental, inverse effect on learning. And that is NOT okay!

At this point, it doesn't require a lot of studies (although they have been done) to prove this point. Every teacher already knows this is true because every teacher has heard these famous words asked by more than one student: "Is this for a grade?" Why do they care to know? Because if it's not, then why bother doing it? The value of learning doesn't even cross the student's mind when immersed in a grading culture. Sadly, I am worried that it doesn't cross many teachers' minds either.

Daniel Pink presents some interesting findings about motivation and performance in this video (if you can't view the video above). What connections can be made between his comments and our current grading policies?

No comments:

Post a Comment