Friday, January 29, 2010

Pink, Godin, Kohn and asymptotes

Dan Pink and Seth Godin both refer to asymptotes in their books Drive and Linchpin.

I found myself agreeing with Seth Godin when he wrote, "asymptotes are sort of boring." But my tune quickly changed after reading both Dan Pink's book Drive and Godin's Linchpin. I found myself oddly fascinated with how they used analytic geometery to show how learning mastery can be achieved.

Essentially, asymptotes occur when you have a line that forever approaches a point but never gets there.

Pink explains in his book Drive:

This is the nature of mastery: Mastery is an asymptote. You can approach it. You can home in on it. You can get really, really close to it... The mastery asymptote is a source of frustration. Why reach for something you can never fully attain? But it's also a source of allure. Why not reach for it? The joy is in the pursuit more than the realization. In the end, mastery attracts precisely because mastery eludes.
I love how Pink shows the cons of pursuing mastery is at the same time the very reason mastery is so appealing.

Godin takes a slightly different perspective on the pursuit of mastery in his book Linchpin:

Ten percent of applications to Harvard are from people who got a perfect score on their SATs. Approximately the same number are from people who were ranked first in their class. Of course, it's impossible to rank higher than first and impossible to get an 820, and yet more than a thousand in each group are rejected by Harvard every year. Perfection, apparently, is not sufficient. 
We have a lot of bean counters in our world. They are busy little people who love to count stuff - and in education, these bean counters love to add up grades. In doing so they wrap themselves in a blanket of grades. Keep in mind though that this blanket is wholy and entirely fabricated

Grades are a man-made attempt at counting something that you can't count - mastery of learning. How many students are duped into thinking that the pursuit of that A or 100% is the asymptote they should be striving for?

We set kids up for failure when we use grades to guide students as they pursue mastery, because they encourage students to think of learning mastery as linear, as opposed to an asymptote.

When students come to see the pursuit of mastery as a destination, rather than a journey, they can't understand how anyone could be attracted to something that is so elusive and so frustrating.

Alfie Kohn explains how research has come to differentiate between students who have a 'learning orientation' and a 'grades orientation'.

Did you notice what I labelled the y-axis? Can you see how the objective of an asymptote changes depending on whether you put learning or grades on your y-axis?

This is exactly why I become so bothered when I see educators become distracted by attempting to define and standardize what constitutes as an A or 90%, when the real problem is that grades, by their very nature, undermine learning and mastery.

For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.


  1. Interesting Blog. Adding you to my blog roll. Have you visited You will find a community there that is of like mind. If you do join that progressive movement for citizen engagement at Reboot, let me know and we will add your blog to that blog roll too.

  2. Thanks, Ken. I will check Reboot out!

  3. nice posts man... so glad to now be following you..

  4. Something profound and interesting that I stumbled on while taking a summer calculus class this year.... I found love expressed in the function f(x)=1/x^2... two opposing lines representing male and female opposites coming from infinity becoming infinitely closer but never becoming one... think about that for a second... infinitely getting closer but never becoming one... if that's not sexy romantic, then u need to graph it! Who says math is boring... it can seduce...

  5. ...its love represented in math... love and math... gotta love it... :))

  6. "asymptote" was a new word for me - and it's use to explain learning was refreshing for me to explain why, when I teach students with special needs, that I don't measure with grades, but with learning. It should be that way for all students. Thanks for the blog post!


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