Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mark the bully

Over the last five years, I have taken a real interest in researching the effects marks have on learning. My research has led me to believe that marks sabotage learning in the name of achievement. I believe learning to be the objective of any sound education system: therefore, anything and everything we do as teachers, students and parents should focus on emphasizing and protecting learning at all costs. Consider the following anecdote:

What if your son or daughter was being bullied? Imagine your son or daughter striving to learn what the teacher instructs, but after every assignment, your child was put down and judged by a student named Mark. In fact, Mark would line up all the students of the class and rank them according to their ability and performance. Your son or daughter hates this, and yet they are subjected to put downs and ridicule after every assignment and test. They try to learn as the teacher asks them, but after every attempt, Mark lashes out. Mark’s relentless harassment eventually places enough pressure on your child that they see each assignment as a chore. They stop taking on challenges in school just so they can ensure success. They stop thinking creatively and instead are happy to mindlessly repeat what Mark wants to hear. They can’t stand Mark’s ridiculing and begin to cheat off of other students, even though they know it’s wrong. After receiving a low grade on an assignment, Mark calls them dumb, and your son or daughter starts to believe Mark is right. They see failure as something that should have never happened. They believe that they can never afford to make a mistake because Mark is always waiting to judge them. To avoid Mark’s bullying and teasing, your child sees their friends as mere speed bumps to pass over to achieve a higher rank. They even establish a fake relationship with their teacher that includes sucking up and brown nosing, hoping that they can increase their grades, again to avoid Mark’s wrath.

What would you want the teacher to do with Mark? Remove him from class and discipline him? Or would you rather the teacher use Mark as a tool to motivate and sort the students of the class to achieve greater success? After all, those with top grades must feel really good about themselves in knowing that they won’t have to suffer Mark’s reign of terror. If only your son or daughter would understand that if they just worked harder, they could avoid the consequences.

Unfortunately, what your son or daughter doesn’t realize is that Mark is not a real person. Mark is really marks. Many teachers use marks to develop a class average on a curve, and this class average does not allow everyone to achieve an 80% or 90%. Most teachers would openly say that they do not place their students on the bell curve, however, too often a subconscious curve is established. Here's what I mean. Go out and ask a teacher or parent this question: What would be your ideal class average? This question is a bit of a setup because if the teacher even cares about their class average in the first place, then they are more likely to be consciously or subconsciously placing their students learning on the bell curve. Regardless, in my experience, I tend to get a lot of answers like "70-75% or somewhere around a B." Think about these responses for a second. Don't these answers imply that some students need to achieve less than 100%? Wouldn't the ideal class average be 100%?

The problem with making class averages matter is that some students are made to fail by design. Not convinced? What if a teacher reported that their class average was 100%? What would be the public reaction? Does anyone for a second believe that people would say "oh wow, that teacher must have worked their tail off to teach those students so much"? This kind of response is laughable. It's more likely that the response would sound more like "hmm, that teacher must mark too easy, or they are just too easy on those kids, or that teacher must have really low standards."

This means that your son or daughter’s effort may have less to do with their success than you understand. Because students are so rigorously compared to one another by teachers, students and parents, only a select few may achieve honors, while the rest are ranked somewhere in the middle or bottom no matter how much effort they put forward. In this system, ability to achieve high grades is more important than learning or effort - it's about competing and winning.

Jerome Bruner, an American pshychologist, once said that "children should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information." And because grades can only be experienced as a reward or punishment, they need to be removed so that children can focus more on just learning.

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