Thursday, November 5, 2009


Sometime over the past year, while I was not paying attention, Lucy started bringing home papers with actual grades on them. Not smiley face stickers, which were the extent of the grading in kindergarten, or comments like, "good work!" or even corrections to mistakes, which sometimes happened in first grade. But actual percentage scores, obtained by way of a grading rubric and often translated into a letter. And if you think that she has not noticed this, then I can only say that I wish you were right.

As you have probably worked out for yourself by now, I am a college mathematics professor. This job, like all jobs, has its own set of joys and frustrations. The joys are probably obvious: the times when students get excited about the subject, have breakthroughs of understanding, ask (and answer) interesting questions, that sort of thing. Many of the frustrations are simply the complementary experiences: when students are bored, or uninterested, or frustrated themselves. But perhaps the principal frustration of my job is the almost universal fact that students work for grades. Even students who genuinely value learning for its own sake, and these are considerably less common than I might hope, usually aim their efforts not at learning itself but at earning good grades.

In a perfect world, of course, grades would reflect learning. But even if grades reflected precisely the learning that we hope to evaluate (which they do not, the world not yet being perfect), there is a fundamental difference of approach between learning for its own sake and learning to earn a grade. Grades are the mother of all extrinsic motivators (money, I suppose, being the father), and like other extrinsic motivators they teach students to look outward, rather than inward, for their rewards.

Young children understand that learning is an intrinsically rewarding activity. Infants learn to walk, toddlers learn to draw, preschoolers learn to count, and kindergartners learn to read, all because those things are fun to learn and interesting to be able to do. Then, suddenly, we start grading them. In the space of less than one academic year, children are no longer proudly announcing their new skills, they are proudly announcing their grades. Or, in some cases, not so proudly. And what is a grade, really? A grade is a summary judgment of a person's ability and achievement, distilled, usually, into a single character. How absurd is that? I mean, come on! Twenty years of multiple intelligence theory and this is still the best we can do?

I am publicly on record as being against assessment, at least the excessively quantitative forms of assessment that are currently so popular in education. But not all forms of assessment are created equal. Qualitative feedback helps students learn, and helps them hold
onto the enjoyment of learning that comes so naturally at the beginning. All grades do is encourage students to become obsessed with performance, and discouraged if they do not perform well. And I can tell you from experience that when students enjoy learning, the entire process of education is more rewarding, and more successful, for everyone.

I am not naive enough to believe that we can eliminate grades at the college level, at least not in my lifetime. I have my doubts about the high school level, too. But could we not, at the very least, stop grading children in elementary school? Could we postpone, just for a few years, squelching the joy kids take in learning? Because it is painful to watch a child begin to worry about grades, but it is hard to fight and damn near impossible to correct later.