About Grades

3 Jan

Someone asked me recently why I tend to frown when grades are mentioned. My attempt to answer.

I don’t think a simple, one-dimensional linear scale (grades) is the best possible way to represent (or honor) the rich cognitive development that occurs in complex patterns across a variety of domains in the growth of an individual.

For instance, grades provide no information on the learning context—no considerations of the course design; social group dynamics; style of teaching; particular assigned, tacit or implied, learning outcomes; opportunities for formative assessment; what was on the syllabus; humidity in the classroom; and so on. And yet the environment is so crucial to understanding how people develop, ignoring it would seem to make your data almost meaningless. If Vygotsky is right, and the most important thing in the study of our development is understanding the potential growth of the individual-in-society, grades aren’t helpful.

For another instance, grades don’t show you what sorts of cognitive development are happening.  Or even what skills are being used. Of the various Howard Gardner intelligences, say, which did the student effectively draw on to get that B in Russian History? That might be interesting to know. A grade won’t help you know that.

You might say that we could supplement the grades with a variety of other things, like the syllabus; an essay on the course by the teacher or a trained observer; a discursive evaluation of the student; a narrative self-evaluation by the student; some pre-and-post testing to learning outcomes; a collected portfolio of produced work with reflective analysis by the student; etc. Yes. Basically, I think that’s what we should organize ourselves to do. Ken Bain describes a kind of “synthetic” (in the sense of creating a synthesis of diverse kinds of data) course evaluation that he thinks would be more helpful than the traditional student survey. I’d like to see along with that a synthetic development report replace the letter grade.

So grades don’t show you everything they possibly could.  What’s worse is I suspect grades might even undermine learning. When people focus on grades rather than learning, which it’s hard not to do, what should be a positive and productive relationship between the learner and the learning environment, leading toward a virtuous circle of robust growth, tends instead to become a cynical negotiation, sadly tending toward a vicious circle of minimal growth. For more on this, see Alfie Kohn on the negative effects of extrinsic motivation, rewards, and punishments.

The usual relationship that arises between learner and school–a sort of reluctant, dogged cooperation; a work-to-rule; and a general defensiveness or mutual suspicion–might be the best way to prepare us for the same kind of negative relationship we’re likely to have with our work environments.  But it is a far cry from what you need (in my opinion) to learn, and what you would get in the sorts of safe spaces you see in, say, a Reggio Emilia or Atelier model, where can be developed the kind of wonderful, risky, vulnerable, collaborative learning Lee Shulman calls a “marriage of insufficiencies.”

Fortunately, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we develop more sophisticated ways to represent the breadth of student and group learning in context, or (what is perhaps also as important) before we learn to show the potential for growth that is present in a culture or an environment. And I think it’s also only a matter of time before we grow school and work environments that are humane.

As a parable, I offer a recent parent-teacher conference experience, with the identities of participants obscured.  In this conference, the parent found his child’s first grade teachers to be amazingly gifted interpersonal perceptors (if you will)–wonderfully attuned to his child’s social development, personality, learning styles, perspective, strengths, loves, fears, challenges, successes.  The teacher’s evocation of the child-as-person-in-context was the bulk of the conversation, and the parent reported that it felt wonderful and appropriate and life-affirming.  Then there was a change. The teacher almost reluctantly drew out from a folder a sheet upon which she’d been forced to register linguistic and math “grades” (only in those two domains, I note!), and the atmosphere of the conference changed immediately from one that was generative, productive, alive, adaptive, full of hope–in short, everything good about education–to the opposite: one that hinted at a lifetime of compliance, fear, bureaucracy, guilt, and worry.

If we could have deleted the grades from that conference, it would have been thoroughly great. And that’s what I’m after. Thoroughly great stuff.


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