Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why

Alfie Kohn's 1994 article, titled "Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why," echoed the reverberating noises I've had in my head for years. Even during my undergrad studies, I asked why the education system grades learners. Maybe I only asked because I, myself, had a low GPA all throughout high school and undergrad careers and wanted to stop feeling dumb. But as I continued to ask and ponder this question, I began to see the real reason behind it.

You see, though on paper it showed I was not a good student, what it didn't show was that I was a great learner.

As I had mentioned before, my first year teaching, I asked my principal if I could do away with grades. Although I couldn't figure out an alternative way to ensure my learners were actually mastering the Common Core State Standards, my principal did inspire me to continue to implement my studies into my classroom and experiment with my learners. That kept me preoccupied while I gathered more and more arsenal to take down the grading system.

Kohn's article provided three grading rationales:

Grading Rationale I: Sorting

One reason for evaluating students is to be able to label them on the basis of their performance and thus to sort them like so many potatoes....most studies suggest that student performance does not improve when instructors grade more stringently and, conversely, that making it relatively easy to get a good grade does not lead students to do inferior work...”
— Kohn, 1994

Now, although I do not see us educators as merely sorting potatoes, I do see grading as somewhat of a past practice that should 'go the way of the dodo.' If we become too reliant on grades, we may inhibit the true wonders of the learning process. With the amount of standardized testing done, I am seeing this effect take hold of my own learners. I can frolic, inspire, and give the best show of the day to them every single day, but they know that inevitably, the number they receive on their standardized assessments and overall GPA will have a direct effect on their future. 

Indeed, studies show that any particular teacher may well give different grades to a single piece of work submitted at two different times.... What grades offer is a spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment.
— Kohn, 1994

Discussing grading practices and philosophies can be one of the most fragile conversations any educator can have. Regardless of how bold you may be, educators have their convictions. They have done their own research and concluded their beliefs. But not all educators are concrete in their practices, and more than not are willing to try anything at least once. Still, as I persist against grades, I can't help but ask myself, 'How can anyone feel right without grading when standardized assessment results and GPAs matter more than anything on a college transcript?'

Grading Rationale II: Motivation

A’s and F’s function as rewards and punishments rather than as useful feedback.... The trouble lies with the implicit assumption that there exists a single entity called “motivation” that students have to a greater or lesser degree. In reality, a critical and qualitative difference exists between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation- between an interest in what one is learning for its own sake, and a mindset in which learning is viewed as a means to an end, the end being to escape a punishment or snag a reward.
— Kohn, 1994

If you ever sit and watch a child, or even some adults, be themselves, they naturally reach for learning. Curiosity is within us all, and we have a need to fulfill this curiosity by learning something. Today's average human has a smart phone which is linked to some network and some wifi at any one moment. We are constantly connecting with other people, researching new recipes or watching a Youtube tutorial on how to fix something, looking up words we don't know, and so much more. We are always reaching. And if this act of reaching is so natural, why is it that these lustrous capabilities dim when stepping inside of a classroom?

Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and, ironically, the less well they do. Consider these findings:
- ...students are more apt to forget what they have learned after a week or so- and are less apt to find it interesting- if they are initially advised that they will be graded on their performance (Gronlick and Ryan 1987).
- When Japanese students were told that a history test would count toward their final grade, they were less interested in the subject- and less likely to prefer tackling difficult questions than those who were told the test was just for monitoring their progress (Kage 1991).
- Children told that they would be graded on their solution of anagrams chose easier ones to work on- and seemed to take less pleasure from solving them- than children who were not being graded (Harter 1978).
’Grades may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest’ (Butler and Nissan 1986, p. 215).
— Kohn, 1994

If learners, upon being graded, experience more fear, less interest, and no desire to take risks, then should we be teaching learners to gain strength in those areas? Or consider taking away the grades so they gain those strengths naturally? Having a strong work ethic and grit are a few qualities employers look for in potential candidates. Integrity and good communication are others. Do we gain such qualities regardless of grades? 

Grading Rationale III: Feedback

One of my all time favorite quotes is, "Feedback is the breakfast of champions" (Ken Blanchard). Blanchard knew what he was talking about, and I ate that quote right up. One practice I have my learners do is giving each other feedback. This is a reflective opportunity for them to not only seek understanding from their peers, but also from themselves. 

There is nothing wrong with helping students internalize and work toward meeting high standards, but that is most likely to happen when they ‘experience success and failure not as a reward and punishment, but as information’ (Bruner 1961, p. 26).
— Kohn, 1994

Giving learners something that is worth learning can make all the difference to them. Whether it be their interest in space or sports, or even in helping a cause in their own community, the important thing is that they are learning. Teach them the skills and strategies they can use to continue their lifelong journey of learning. 

And If You Must Grade...

- Never grade students while they are still learning something and, even more important, do not reward them for their performance at that point....
- Never grade on a curve. The number of good grades should not be artificially limited so that one student’s success makes another’s less likely.... It also undermines collaboration and community....
- Never give a separate grade for effort.... The fatal paradox is that while coercion can sometimes elicit resentful obedience, it can never create desire.
— Kohn, 1994

We are 21st century educators teaching 21st century learners. The future of the learner needs to allow for more opportunities to be creative, innovative, and make an impact on the lives of others.

Grades are not currency, and they should not make learners feel richer or poorer than each other. Rather, learners should feel compelled to grow, and be curious enough to take that challenge on.

Kohn, A. (1994).Grading: The issue is not how but why. Educational Leadership, October, 1994.

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