The Great Educational Debate: Grades vs. Learning

I’ve had a recurring nightmare for the past few weeks. Perhaps I should call it a “day-mare” since I’m usually awake when it slithers into my conscious mind.

I’m at the University, where I started taking classes in January. With shaking hands I turn in my Developmental Psychology paper, worth 60% (60%!!!!!!!) of my final grade.

In the inexplicable way that dreams often do, I skip ahead to the return of my graded essay. On the top is a giant red F.

F for fraud. F for faker… F for Failure.

The teaching staff morphs from my likeable Scottish professor into a group of angry, faceless beings. They shake their heads in disgust and instruct security to escort me from the premises immediately. I am ordered never to return again.

This neurotic little fantasy has not inspired me to greatness. I stare blankly at my laptop with the words 60%, 60%, 60%!!!!! echoing through my mind. After two weeks of false starts and half-hearted research The Impact of the Environment on the Cognitive Development of Preschool Children is no closer to being done than when I started. The pressure is paralyzing.

On the other hand…

It’s so different with my English assignments. I was thrown the first time I received one back with only witty comments and suggestions scrawled in the margins. I looked carefully through each page and even on the back. No mark.

I’ve been conditioned to work for a grade. I was slightly miffed. If I am not being measured, does it even count?

But I find myself craving these assignments. They flow easily. I enjoy them. It is some of my best work.

Because I forgot…

I attended a workshop at school last week: Study Skills for the Mature Student. Despite my penchance for slurpees and children’s fiction, the university has decided I am “mature”. It sounds so respectable. I’m not about to argue.

The speaker reminded us that we are here to collect knowledge, not grades. Marks do not always reflect learning. And my GPA is not a measure of my worth.

She seemed like a nice kid. And frankly, it’s the same advice I’ve given to my own kids. I know this. Now that I’m “mature” I shouldn’t need to be reminded of the obvious. But I do.

So I set aside my need to get an “A” on my psych paper, which somewhere along the way became a way to prove my worth to the entire academic community (who, I’m sure, are on pins and needles wanting to know just what I have to say). In fact, I chucked the whole topic and started over again. Successful Ageing: the Cognitive, Emotional and Social Effects is working out much better for me. And no, the irony of the topic does not escape me.

What works and what doesn’t…

The entire educational system is structured around extrinsic rewards; the carrot and the stick, so to speak. Jump through these hoops and you get such-and-such a number or letter to reflect your value. Do not perform according to some, often arbitrary, standard and you will be punished.

This kind of conditioning works fabulously for simple, mechanical tasks. Eat your supper, get dessert. Ignore your chores, no TV. But it doesn’t work so great for anything that requires creativity and complex thinking.

In fact, studies show that incentives, especially high value ones, have a very NEGATIVE effect on creative productivity. They are not the motivating factor we expect. Rather than performing better, people perform WORSE when a reward is on the line. The “carrot and stick” of extrinsic motivators inhibits innovation and discourages critical thinking.

People are inspired to greatness by intrinsic motivations: curiosity, imagination, creativity, and personal satisfaction, to name a few. We were designed to learn and grow. In a pressure-free, encouraging environment we do this so much better! This is the reason my ungraded assignments excite my best work, while the high pressure paper overwhelms me entirely.

Dan Pink gives a brilliant talk called The Surprising Science of Motivation which makes this point better than I ever could! He is mostly interested in its application in the business world; companies who make amazing strides by loosening control. Instead of bigger incentives, they are giving autonomy and a sense of purpose to their employees, with remarkable results.

What would happen if we did the same thing in education? Students who learn because they are interested in the discussion and excited to play a part, not merely regurgitating what the teacher wants to hear. Nurturing thinkers and artists and builders, not a pecking order based on a narrow set of skills.

I’ve had a few teachers who truly believed this over the years. They seem revolutionary, more interested in what I had to contribute, than in measuring me (or themselves). There’s a reason they make so many cheesy “teacher-inspiring-a-tough-inner-city-class-to-greatness” movies. Because teachers like that really do exist and they make all the difference.

So here’s me, 60% certain that the grade on my paper does not define me.

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About So Here's Us.... life on the raggedy edge.

I'm a bookworm, nature lover, kick-boxer, candy fiend, sci fi geek, home body, progressive Christian and part-time student. I love my crazy life and the messy, fun, stubborn, silly, brilliant people who populate it. View all posts by So Here's Us.... life on the raggedy edge.

4 responses to “The Great Educational Debate: Grades vs. Learning

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