Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chris Wejr on The Price of Grades

Chris Wejr wrote a fantastic post where he reflected on an article that explained how Aboriginal students were being offered cash incentives for their grades.

Chris asks a number of provocative questions that challenge the conventional "common sense" behind bribing children for their academic achievement (read as grades).

Here is one of my favorite parts from his post:

I have taught grade 1 through grade 12 and as they grow older, many students seem to lose their sense of curiosity and learning – a primary student has yet to ask me, “Is this for marks?`while this is a common question in most high school classes.
So what happens to this inquisitive learning nature in children? Why do some feel the need to have to resort to bribing students into doing well at school? As students move up through the system, the societal and educational focus shifts from learning to grades and from the child to the curriculum. Some of the teachers at our school have stated that they would love to just teach what is meaningful to their students but they are pressured from society and the Ministry of Education to define student learning in the form of a single letter or number. Too, they feel pressure to make sure they get through the mandated curriculum.
Why is it that as children grow up, we narrow our definition of school? I find it odd that we tend to accept the idea that very young children, even toddler's, need to develop their whole selves - and yet, when children reach school age, we suddenly forget that children have other body parts other than their heads.

This reminds me of an excerpt from Sir Ken Robinson's book The Element:
The other big influence on education has been the academic culture of universities, which has tended to push aside any sort of activity that involves the heart, the body, the senses, and a good portion of our actual brains.
The result is that school systems everywhere inculcate us with a very narrow view of intelligence and capacity and overvalue particular sorts of talent and ability. In doing so, they neglect others that are just as important, and they disregard the relationships between them in sustaining the vitality of our lives and communities. This stratified, one-size-fits-all approach to education marginalizes all of those who do not take naturally to learning this way. 

I think we can probably mostly agree that school has too narrow of a definition of success. What if the kids disengagement is a message we need to listen to? What if they are trying to tell us just how alienated and marginalized traditional school has made them feel?

Even if we can agree that there is a problem, what we can't seem to agree on is how to solve it.

For example, here is a comment left by Rebekah (comment #25) on Chris Wejr's post:

I think it’s naive to say that extrinsic motivation isn’t ultimately authentic. How many of us would show up at work every day if we didn’t get paid? Without money as a motivator, our entire economic system falls apart. Given that our school district’s mission statement is “to develop responsible citizens through appropriate academic, career and social programs”, it seems that the economic aspect of motivation is valid (i.e., we want our students to grow up to contribute to society by having paying jobs). When I worked in Watts (L.A.), one of the biggest challenges we faced was students who had no hope. They gave up because of academic frustration, social fear, and economic hopelessness. Extrinsic motivators worked as a bridge for those kids. If we could give them a reason to try, we could often make them see what they were capable of, and they would begin to hope. Only then could we work on building intrinsic motivation for learning.

If our premise is to solve the problem of disengagement by manipulating and forcing engagement, we are ignoring why kids are disengaged in the first place. Arguing over the implementation of incentives to coerce children to achieve is a massive exercise in missing the point. Before asking how we can get kids engaged in the current school system, we must investigate what we are asking them to in engage in, and why we want them to do so. For example, in the case of Canada's Aboriginals, history shows us that there are some very good reasons why school has in fact been harmful.

At some point, we need to admit that the number of children who choose to vote with their feet and disengage from school is less of a problem with the kids and more of an indictment of the system. And manipulating kids to reconcile themselves to a system that may be broken or irrelevant is likely to do more harm than good.


  1. I would show up to work if I didn't get paid. I'd be a volunteer and I'd have to get a different job. Maybe a number-cruncher. Then again, I also don't see learning as "work" and so I think it's an unfair question in the first place.

  2. Joe, thanks for continuing this important conversation! Thank you for the mention and for including the reference to Residential schools in this blog.

    For far too long, we have been using short-term solutions in education. Trying to get students to obey and comply does not help to encourage the development of our students in a way which can help them to flourish. As Kohn says, rewards work in that they teach kids to get better at... getting rewards.

    Keeping the focus on learning rather than grades is so key to our development as an education system. Thanks for all you do for this as you are truly... a Linchpin.

  3. Hey Joe,
    I always love reading your thoughts on grading. The other day in class we were debating the value of standardized testing and I was amazed at how many people in my class were actually for these tests. They stated that it teaches the students stress management, responsibility and accountability.

    But that was not the 'best' part of the discussion, you see we got into whether or not these tests should count for marks and even the people who were not for standardized testing thought that this was the only way to get kids to take a test seriously. I was amazed that this comment resounded throughout our class with agreement from all the soon to be professionals.

    My rebuttal to the class was that if we cannot present 'learning' in such a way that our students will only participate is if they receive a mark then the whole academic system has failed these students but most of all we as teachers have failed them.

    I watch every day, and am even guilty myself on occasion, of people getting so wrapped up in a letter defining who they are and what they can do. This semester I have watched some amazing soon to be teachers question the reason they chose the profession just because they got a B or heaven forbid a C from the professor. I change can come sooner than later, our kids deserve it!



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