Friday, June 18, 2010

Grades: Education's Snake-Oil Currency

The idea of abolishing grading from school tends to invoke a kind of fear in teachers and parents. One of the most common fears includes this:

If I don't give a grade, why would students learn or do anything I ask them?

To this fear I have tended to quote Alfie Kohn from his article Degrading to De-Grading:

“If I can’t give a child a better reason for studying than a grade on a report card, I ought to lock my desk and go home and stay there.” So wrote Dorothy De Zouche, a Missouri teacher, in an article published in February . . . of 1945. But teachers who can give a child a better reason for studying don’t need grades. Research substantiates this: when the curriculum is engaging – for example, when it involves hands-on, interactive learning activities -- students who aren’t graded at all perform just as well as those who are graded (Moeller and Reschke, 1993).

While I think Dorothy De Zouche hits the nail on the head, there may be some truth in that not all students will find all concepts interesting, no matter how it is presented. As an experienced teacher, I have found that despite some of my best efforts, there are always some students that just don't buy-in.

So let's look at Degrading through a different perspective. For this, let's use Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational:

You are at your mother-in-law's house for Thanksgiving dinner, and what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for you! The turkey is roasted to a golden brown; the stuffing is homemade and exactly the way you like it. Your kids are delighted: the sweet potatoes are crowned with marshmallows. And your wife is flattered: her favorite recipe for pumpkin pie has been chose for dessert.

The festivities continue into the late afternoon. You loosen your belt and sip a glass of wine. Gazing fondly across the table at your mother-in-law, you rise to your feet and pull out your wallet. "Mom, for all the love you've put into this, how much do I owe you?" you say sincerely. As silence descends on the gathering, you wave a handful of bills. "Do you think three hundred dollars will do it? No wait, I should give you four hundred!"

This is not the picture that Norman Rockwell would have painted. A glass of wine falls over; your mother-in-law stands up red-faced; your sister-in-law shoots you an angry look; and your niece burst into tears. Next year's Thanksgiving celebration, it seems, may be a frozen dinner in front of the television set.

WHAT'S GOING ON here? Why does an offer for direct payment put such a damper on the party? As Margaret Clark, Judson Mills, and Alan Fiske suggested a long time ago, the answer is that we live simultaneously in two different worlds - one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms include friendly requests that people make of one another. Could you help me move this couch? Could you help me change this tire? Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant pay-backs are not required: you may help move your neighbor's couch, but this doesn't mean he has to come right over and move yours. It's like opening a door for someone: it provides pleasure for both of you, and reciprocity is not immediately required.

The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different. There's nothing warm and fuzzy about it. The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages prices, rents, interest and costs-and benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evils or mean - in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism - but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for - that's just the way it is.

When we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life hums along pretty well. Take sex, for instance.We may have it free in the social context, where it is, we hope, warm and emotionally nourishing. But there's also market sex, sex that is on demand and that costs money. This seems pretty straightforward. We don't have husbands (or wives) coming home asking for a $50 trick; nor do we ave prostitutes hoping for everlasting love.

The sad reality is that grading has shaped learning into a sharp-edged, costs-and-benefits market environment. As the retailer's of learning, the teacher "offers" learning as a product. The consumers then do a cost/benefit analysis - if students decide to buy-in, they demand prompt payment accepted in the form of grading.

Learning conducted in this context shares far too many similarities with Ariely's example of market sex. Like the prostitute who does tricks for money with no expectations for everlasting love, the student complies while never engaging in a love for learning.

Ariely aptly differentiates between market and social norms. Somewhere along the way, we lost the plot to school. When institutions become so large and impersonal, they become less about fulfilling their founding goals and more about sustaining there very existence (at any cost). Grading allows for the processing of large batches of students, but in doing so, we pay a frightful cost. When market norms drive learning, the teacher-student relationship is bastardized.

But how did we get here? How did the classroom become more about market norms than social norms? While I won't pretend to know the answers to these hefty questions, I would wager a strong bet that grading has played a significant role in our degradation.

Five years ago, I abolished grading and it changed everything. For one school year, my students are liberated from the cold and distant clutches of market norms and we are free to learn in an environment that is built upon social norms.

It is good. You should join us...


  1. I love this article. Very inspiring; so thank you!

    I abolished "grades" and went toward standards-based descriptions of student performance and most of my colleagues saw the value in it. But one thing kept getting in the way of further adoption of the practice:

    They have no plan to follow for implementation.

    Sure, I was willing to take on the challenge of trying (and I stress that it was trying) to make it work. But I had no one clear system of doing it. While it was better, in my opinion, than grades, I had a constant feeling that it should have been better and that my lack of creativity and insight were making this a less useful experience for my students.

    Do you know of any people who have posted their "system" for tracking, evaluation... you know... all the stuff that you have to do to be able to do to help the kids take responsibility and control of their learning?

    So many people want to ditch grades, they just don't trust themselves to know what to move to.

  2. [continued from a twitter dialog w/ me, @DrGarcia] in a person-centered analysis, I would agree that learning and love are two inherent desires, yes. My conflict resides in that learning or loving for that matter, are not "personal," they are social acts w/ other actors. In other words, if students are prostitutes, then teachers are pimps? Or are the teachers the tricks? Are the parents the pimps? Or the tricks? Is the Institution the pimp?

    You see, employing metaphor is powerful, especially if u pick on as inflammatory as you have here, yet w/o further, deeper interrogation and explanation, its a lost opportunity to touch readers on a profound level (story telling & story-hearing).

    Questions for your consideration, no need to reply, unless you desire. When talking about teaching, learning, and schooling, why are you drawn to metaphors about crime scenes, house fires, and now prostitution? And, how are those metaphors congruent with what you believe, and see your role in the lives of students and as an activist to be? G

  3. @Dr Garcia You make an interesting point about learning and love being social rather than personal... I need to think about this a little more...

    In regards to my metaphors, I will admit that the metaphors I have used are of the "darker" variety (prostitution, crime scene and fire fighting), but I need to clarify that I only use these metaphors to express my disdain for sit-and-get, worksheet, reward & punish, lecture to the test, multiple choice exam, sit in your desk and shut up kind of schooling.

    In my classroom, these metaphors have no place... in my classroom, I believe in the organic metaphor - learning is a seed.

    Perhaps in my zealousness to make a point about sit-and-get schooling, I come across and quite negative and perhaps a little dark.

    I think I shall write more about the organic metaphor.

  4. @BJ - If teachers want a mere substitute for grading, then they are still missing the point. What I am talking about includes far more trust.

    Testing is wholly and entirely inferior to the kinds of things teachers see with their own eyes. Teachers cannot and should not obsess over documenting all these observations - like they would with a grade book.

    What's sad is that teachers have been deprofessionalized in such a manner that many couldn't imagine school without the rigid and prescribed routines.

    If teachers are looking for a new model, I suggest they study the Socratic Model of Teaching.

  5. Grades, certificates, test scores, and diplomas are all just proxies, which like anything that have economic value tend to get diluted by junk. With the technology we have, there's no real need for proxies. Take a look at this post.

  6. On the topic of the metaphors of the crime scene etc.

    For some of us who care passionately about learning and opportunity for all (and who don't see education as a race to the top for a few) so much of current policy and practice IS a crime scene.

    The extremity of the metaphor matches the strength of feeling when it comes to the crimes of deskilling teachers and depriving children of their birthright as learners.

    Want a more "cheerful" metaphor about the "crime" of grading?

    Grades are the candy floss of education. Appealing to some in the short term, nutritionally worthless and ultimately destructive.

    Like a cheap tin trophy.

    The cattle prod for the bully, the carrot for the desperate and a prop for the incompetent.

    A diversion tactic, sidelining learners from what actually matters.

    The candle snuffer of the love of learning.

  7. @Dave - nice post! I enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing.

    @Josie - wow! well put. I love the candy floss and candle snuffer metaphor... you made me laugh out loud! So true!

  8. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

  9. More on grades and other proxies (backtrack): Proxy Problems

  10. AMEN JOE!!!! Trying hard to follow here!


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