Sunday, March 12, 2017

Learning is the Reward

Let’s face it, school, as we know it is driven by grades as the main reflection of what students do, or do not, know.  What has resulted is a rat race of sorts where many kids and parents alike have their eye on the prize. The prize in this case is either a coveted letter or number grade that is celebrated above the most important aspect of education – whether a student actually learned and can apply this newly constructed knowledge in meaningful ways. Micro-credentials, although a step in a better direction as a means to make feedback more personal, can also perpetuate this problem.  

The process of grading is convoluted and fraught with errors and at times arbitrary decisions.  Just think about the inherent disaster of points systems. Many grades are determined using an accumulation of points over a set amount of time including homework (just checked for completeness), extra-credit, meeting (or failing to meet) behavioral expectations, participation, or a loss of points for late assignments.  The last example illustrates how many grades are nowhere close to indicating what a student has actually learned. The issues with grading are not new.  After an analysis of several research studies, Alfie Kohn (2011) concluded the following:
  • Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.  
  • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.
Grading perpetuates a bigger problem.  If students come through our doors each day to just "do school" then we have already failed them. By failure I mean a blatant disregard for providing them with the necessary skills, behaviors, and qualities that a grade could never quantify.  Grading is a major component compelling kids to just go through the motions and “do” school. Learning, not grades, should be the reward for students. Helping them recognize this is the challenge we must all accept. I recently came across the learning pit concept and it immediately resonated with me.  With learning as not only the goal, but also the final outcome, students are guided through a process that illustrates how learning is the ultimate reward. When grades are thrown into the mix the focus becomes a path of least resistance, negating the positive outcomes associated with students experiencing the learning pit. 

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What is the hard truth about traditional grades and how they are currently used? In this day and age I think grades are more for parents and schools than they are for the students we are trying to serve. Learning is not only a messy process, but it the path also varies greatly from student to student. All kids learn differently and possess different and unique abilities to show us that they understand concepts. Makerspace work and projects that students engage in are a great example of this point. Students do to learn through trial and error, failure, collaboration, cross-disciplinary connections, taking risks, and overcoming certain fears that grades bring about. The ultimate reward is making something that does something and in many cases this is a workable solution to a problem they identified. 

I think we are a long way off from abolishing all grades.  That doesn’t mean we can’t critically reflect on the role grades play and how they are calculated.  If the true goal of schools is learning then that should be reflected somehow in a grade.  We must begin by developing better formative and summative assessments that move away from students telling us what they know and instead show us that they understand. A mindset shift is also needed where students work and think in ways that allow them to experience the inherent rewards of entering and exiting the learning pit.  This is Quad D learning at its finest. 


  1. I completely agree. Whenever possible I report with comments about the student'process in learning and their progress in understanding instead of a number or letter grade. Unfortunately, places where this is acceptable are few.

  2. Good article, thanks for sharing

  3. Eric -

    Great article and thanks for the GHO with my students about this earlier today.

    Rick Worm eligible stated that in order for a grade to have an accurate reflection of learning it must encompass only the standards learned, and not the extras such as extra credit, effort and the like, otherwise it would be an unethical representation. It should be reported elsewhere on the report card otherwise it distorts the student's learning.

    This article is a great follow up to that philosophy and one that needs to be addressed across the staff settings in every school. It is hard for teachers, especially that are very standoffish towards technology or change, to fully understand this and find it easier to just do what they have always done. I fight this fight every year here.

    It is amazing how much technology has advanced in the last 5 years or so, and how that rapid acceleration has highlighted the differences between those that are on board and those that are still dragging their feet. Our teaching needs to adapt to this new reality and focus on how we teach using these new tools versus just putting an expensive pencil in front of our students.

    My students are jazzed after the GHO today and are renewing their drive to make schools better for kids.

    Thanks Eric.

    1. Rick Wormeli hits the nail on the head. The unfortunate aspect of grades is that so many other measures are incorporated into them that have absolutely nothing to do with learning. Grading for many is rooted in control. Educators have to be more open about the value of current value of grades and validity of grading practices.