Monday, May 23, 2011

Grading distorts and bastardizes our love for learning

When I share that I assess my students everyday without ever needing to grade, I tend to get some very odd reactions. Because most people grow up with grading, many of us have been led to believe that learning and grading are synonymous. It's as if that because we know where there's smoke their's fire, we (wrongly) extrapolate that where there are grades there's learning.

It's more than a little ironic that many assume grading and learning to be synonyms, while others see them for what they really are -- antonyms.

So why is this?

In her post titled Distorted Vision: Knowing your own culture in order to know others, Sondra Thiederman puts it this way:
It is as if each of us is a fish in a fish bowl. The fish swims around inside the bowl and is surrounded by water and glass. The fish is unaware of the water and the glass and, most important, does not realize that those two substances distort the accuracy with which he sees the outside world. Our culture is like that water and glass. We see the world through a distorted screen created by our deeply and often subconsciously-held values and beliefs.
While a fish isn't aware of the glass and water, people immersed in school can't recognize how grading distorts and bastardizes our love for learning. Like a fish immersed in water, we are drowning in grading, and for the most part, we don't even know it.

Seth Godin tells this story in his book Linchpin:
A guy is riding in the first-class cabin of a train in Spain and to his delight, he notices that he's sitting next to Pablo Picasso. Gathering up his courage, he turns to the master and says, "Senior Picasso, you are a great artist, but why is your art, all modern art, so screwed up? Why don't you paint reality instead of these distortions?" 
Picasso hesitates for a moment and asks, "So what do you think reality looks like?" 
The man grabs his wallet and pulls out a picture of his wife. "Here, like this. It's my wife."
Picasso takes the photograph, looks at it and grins. "Really? She's very small. And flat, too."
We've immersed ourselves so much in grading that we can't even recognize that they are imaginary. Similar to how a photograph makes us small and flat, grades reduce learning to a mere symbol -- an A or 67% -- but neither the photograph or the grade can paint reality. They are only as real as constructs can be real - which isn't very much. When compared to a real person or real learning, both the photo and the grade are fraudulent fabrications. It may be convenient for us to pretend these fabrications are real but that doesn't make them so.

And until we come up for air and see grades for what they really are, small and flat, we will continue to experience learning as nothing more than a means to an end that most students can't wait to be rid of.


  1. For 10 years I have been struggling with grading. I love teaching! I even love the the hours I put into planning. There is nothing better than seeing my students excited about what they are learning and putting forth so much effort into their writing and research. When it comes time to do the marking on these projects, however, something happens, to me, and to my students. I want to give feedback, and I do, on a daily basis. But I find myself severely procrastinating assigning a number, mark, or grade. It doesn't seem right or fair at all. I can see it written on my students' faces when assignments are returned. The look of disappointment and defeat. The look that says, "why did I bother at all...?" There isn't a rubric out there that says you have grown so much by this assignment! Instead the students' compare themselves to one another and come to the conclusion that they will never be good enough or smart enough, so why bother? I remember that feeling from when I was a student too! And now within our own division, we teachers are graded by an evaluator from division office who tells us that this is a way to improve our teaching practices. Really? All it does is make me understand how defeated my students have felt all this time and even I am left with a "nothing I do will ever please them," attitude. So why bother trying, right? Wrong, of course. But I think get it. So what do I do now that I get it?

  2. Hi Joe,
    I like your thoughts, not because I totally agree with you, but because they are genuine. With your permission, I would like to present my point of view.
    1. Learning and grading are not synonyms, but these two words are not an antonyms. There is no same source, no same output, or any other connection.
    2. Our culture holds us with specific and maybe somewhat wrong view on the universe and good/bad scenarios, but if you will destroy the glass, the water will sink down and fish will die.
    3. Grading is measurement tool and you can manipulate this tool in a way, that it will not disturb the learning, but can comfort the need of precision and progress.
    Bess Ostrovsky


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