In my last post, I mentioned that changing how learning happens in school is going to mean changing how we see grades. Let me explain what I mean. What are grades for? Just exactly why are grades important in school?
I am going to guess that initially, as class sizes got larger and standardization was occurring, grades were meant to be a measure for both students and teachers. Some way was needed to assess whether or not the material had been learned.
In this system, a “high” grade would indicate that enough of the information has been understood to move on to a different or more complex topic. (Remember when a 70 was considered “passing” and an indication that you could move on?)
A “low” grade should show that more work needs to be done, either on the part of the student or the teacher. Yes, I said teacher might need to do more work. I think low grades can mean a failure of teachers as well as students. To give a rough example, a low grade of a student in a class of other students, who mostly passed, may be an indication that that the student needs to do something. They may need to work harder on this particular material, need more help than most to understand the material, or need to look at their own personal motivations. But a low grade across a class means that the teacher needs to look at how they taught the material or failed to inspire the class as a whole.
But grades have come to mean something different. They have become a measure of who can cross the finish line first, who can “beat” all the other students, who can master the material the fastest. You can see this in rigid make-up work policies, not returning graded tests because it might provide a means of cheating in the future (when in the most practical sense, if a class is worthwhile a cheating student is only cheating themselves), and making new versions for later tests so some students won’t gain an “unfair advantage” from talking to their friends. And while there is some worth to being able to identify students who can grasp material quickly and thoroughly, that shouldn’t be the only goal.
Part of this shift has happened because we have tried so hard to remove the subjectivity of grades – to make them purely objective – to try to make them “fair.” This was done with the best of intentions. Who hasn’t been frustrated by not being able to figure out what was lacking in a project graded subjectively?
But it has gone to far. We favor multiple choice tests over essay tests because they’re more objective. When a project is assigned, there’s a massive grading rubric with a hundred points to check off, so that every grade point earned and lost is accounted for. Because we need to be sure the students have all been graded “fairly,” so we can measure them against each other – so we can rank them and figure out exactly who is the “best.”
I say this as a person who embraced speed math tests because they were purely objective and could I could manage to rank as “best.” But the fact is, that pretty much everything in life is based on subjective measures. And companies don’t need the best engineer, they need ten “of the best” engineers who can work together.
Which brings me to my next point, working in project groups. I’ll go into that in my next post.
For a more academic and researched discussion of grades, which addresses a lot of arguments you might come up with for the benefits of grades, like motivation, here is an excellent article:
More articles in this series and review of Most Likely to Succeed
- Most Likely to Succeed Documentary Review and Discussion – Part 1/11
- I hate school – Most Likely to Succeed, Part 2/11 Does your kid hate school? Do kids they really hate it because they have to work hard and they are lazy, or is there another reason?
- How important is doing well in school to success? – Most Likely to Succeed Part 3/11 Have you told your kid that it’s for important so they can get a good job? How important is doing well in school to success?
- We don’t need human calculators, so why are we training them? – Most Likely to Succeed, Part 4/11 Our education system was designed to train workers for jobs that are being replaced by machines. It’s outdated.
- Fear of Failure in Education – Most Likely to Succeed Part 5/11 Schools are as much afraid of failing the test as students are, in spite of it not being a guarantee of success.
- High Tech High – Most Likely to Succeed Part 6/11 In search of a new model for teaching, an alternative to memorizing facts and to regurgitate them on tests – High Tech High.
- Project Based Learning – Most Likely to Succeed Part 7/11 Most Likely to Succeed presents the best solution I’ve seen to the problems of run-away tests and hours of homework – project based learning.
- Grades – What are they for? Most Likely to Succeed Part 8/11 What do student grades mean? Are they a measure for improving learning? Or a way to rank kids against each other so we can identify the “best” kids?
- The problems with group projects – Most Likely to Succeed Part 9/11 For group projects like those portrayed at High Tech High in Most Likely to Succeed, schools will have to structure, teach and grade projects differently.
- Cut the School Curriculum – Most Likely to Succeed Part 10/11 To change learning to be more in-depth the way it is presented in Most Likely to Succeed, we’re going to have to cut the school curriculum.
- Most Likely to Succeed – Learn more Part 11/11 Change the antiquated structure of education to prepare students for jobs and create happier, healthier, more creative individuals.