Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grading Goslings

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely writes about the perils of first impressions:

A few decades ago, the naturalist Konrad Lorenz discovered that goslings, upon breaking out of their eggs, become attached to the first moving object they encounter (this is generally their mother). Lorenz knew this because in one experiment he became the first thing they saw, and they followed him loyally from then on through adolescence. With that, Lorenz demonstrated not only that goslings make initial decisions based on what's available in their environment, but that they stick with a decision once it has been made. Lorenz called this natural phenomenon imprinting.

Is the human brain, then, wired like that of a gosling? Do our first impressions and decisions become imprinted? And if so, how does this imprinting play out in our lives? When we encounter a new product, for instance, do we accept the first price that comes before our eyes? And more importantly, does that price (which in academic lingo we call an anchor) have a long-term effect on our willingness to pay for the product from then on?

While it is true that grading is a relatively new invention in human learning, it is pretty safe to say that whether we are the teacher or the student, grading has become an anchor for us, and that anchor brings with it long-term effects on our willingness to even imagine an education system without grading.

As goslings, we hatched from our schooling shells, and the first moving object we saw was our grade point average - and through out our schooling adolescence we've been following loyally.

But it's time we grow up.

While this imprinting may be natural, grading is not. As Dan Ariely puts it, we are being predictably irrational in our loyalty to grading. For too long we have married ourselves to this misguided anchor. Deep down, we may know that reducing real learning to a number or letter is fraudulent, but this gosling-like imprinting has us stubbornly locked to our initial experiences.

We may not be able to go back in time to alter our own learning environments that anchored us towards grading, but we can provide a more authentic environment for our children so that the first moving object they see is real learning.


  1. I agree Joe. I recognize my own difficulty discarding grading (or rewards and punishments) after a lifetime in the educational system. I have some practical perspective on it. Our young people rely on us to form their first impressions (how old is that phrase I wonder?). Each year we can reduce the emphasis on grades is worth it. Each year focussed on learning could help us all re-mold the competitive paradigm we imagine governs society.

  2. If we imprint on the grading system on a systemic level, don't we also imprint at a personal level on the early grades our teachers give us? And what a shame for me and my potential future successes if I imprint on a low grade... I'll keep following that grade faithfully no matter the cost to my own possibilities.


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