Grading: it’s probably the aspect of educating that all teachers (from elementary strait through university) like the least. Yet at the same time we all seem to assume that grading is both essential and inevitable, even as we may question our ability to reduce our understanding of a student’s learning into an easily quantifiable number, letter or rank. Virtually all of this week’s readings challenged the assumption that grades are essential for student learning, and in fact, many of the readings argued that grades are not only inaccurate, prone to bias and generally unhelpful, but also actively toxic to the learning process. I can’t say that I found any of this all that surprising. I already knew that it is difficult to assess the kind of higher order thinking which should be an important part of a college education (or any education really). I’ve also already seen how a focus on grades often keeps students from engaging in the material at a deeper level. As a matter of fact, every week as we talk about innovate learning techniques that can help our students think at a deeper level, I can’t help but think of that student on the front row raising their hand and asking if this is going to be on the test.
In a lot of ways, our students are even more attached to the system of grades than we are. Some of them, like Lisa Simpson, have their sense of self-worth tied up in these powerful little letters and others are simply acting on a rational calculation of their self-interest based on everything everyone has told them about how the world works. Get good grades in high school to get into a good college, get good grades in college to get a good job (or, just as often these days, get into a good grad school). On and on it goes. We can talk about innovate teaching all we want, but the fact of the matter is that for many of our students, all this learning stuff is just a way to get that fancy piece of paper that is supposed to open the door to the rest of their lives. Of course, reality is a lot more complicated. That little piece of paper might open some doors (although on its own it doesn’t open nearly as many as I expected it to when I graduated the first time around), but by itself, without the capacity for critical thought, introspection and other higher order thinking, it is unlikely to bring success and even less likely to bring any sense of happiness or fulfillment.
We might hope that the ‘real world’ would see the value of higher level thinking and actually encourage us to change the way that we assess, but unfortunately the ‘real world’ is often every bit as obsessed with measurable outcomes and simple systems of reward and punishment. I really enjoyed Dan Pink’s video, because he addressed the issue of assessment not in terms of education but in terms of business. I think this video points to a reality that debates in education often fail to consider, the reality that our obsession with overly simplistic measurable results is not an education problem, but a society problem. I can’t help but think about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he essentially argues that modern institutions (be they factories, prisons, armies or schools) are based upon the concept of control through constant observation. One important part of observation is breaking tasks down into simple steps that can be standardized, taught, observed and enforced (Foucault, 157). Perhaps grades are just a manifestation of this unseen force that underlays the fabric of modern society.
Wow. Now I’m starting to get depressed. Sometimes all of this feels like it’s beyond my control, like I’m just a cog in this unceasing machine. Alfie Cohn talks about this sentiment in “The Case Against Grades,” referring to it as the “better get used to it” philosophy. (Kohn) Cohn argues that the prevalence of grades throughout a student’s life is no reason to give in to bad policy. Instead, Cohn suggests that teachers seek out ways to minimize the impact of grades on student learning through alternative forms of assessment. Similarly, in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow gives several suggestions for ways that an individual professor can limit the harmful aspects of grades. For example, he talks about creating “Evaluation-Free Zones” by having periods where there are only ungraded assignments (197). These articles do give me some hope that I can help my students move beyond a focus on grades and begin to appreciate learning in its own right. I’ll be interested to see what the rest of this class thought when we discuss some of these ideas in class this week.
P.S.: Michel Foucault discusses education extensively in Discipline and Punish and I’ve only just scratched the surface of his analysis. He gives an interesting (although also depressing) analysis of the role of education in modern society.