Why Focusing on Grades is Okay

David over at Real Teaching Means Real Learning posted last month about the focus of learning over grades. In principal, I agree that learning should be first in the minds of children and grownups. In principal.

But this is reality. And I have two issues with David’s opinion.

The conversation points for each focus is different.

He compares questions like “What is your grade?” with “What did you learn?” If a child takes a test, the question, “What did you learn?” is goofy. You can learn while taking a test, but the intent of the test is to prove what you have already learned.

Grades are specific measurements, learning is a general unmeasurable concept (not mathematically). You would do just as well switching the question, “How far is it to your house?” with “Do you like your commute home?”

The logistical questions about homework and report cards are a trained response for parents. Parents need hear this only once, 20 minutes before the bus ’rounds the corner: “OH NO! I FORGOT TO DO MY MATH HOMEWORK!” Yeah, try telling a mom to switch “What’s your homework?” with “Did you have fun today?”

Sometimes grades are all a kid’s got.

Occasionally there’s no energy around learning a subject. A good student will turn to the competition of the grade to get the job done. Either way, the kid gains some knowledge.

I did this with history. It’s not my bag. I did have a great history prof in college who made things come alive. But I still just wanted to get through. Focusing on the grades got me there. And I learned lots.

If a student doesn’t love math, that’s cool. They can focus on the algorithms to get the job done and measure that with the grades. If it keeps their confidence up, maybe they’ll run into something someday that gets them excited about math. And maybe they won’t.

And that’s okay.

Parents should use both types of conversation points.

David’s intention is pure, though. We should focus more on the learning. But to think that we’ll stop with the grades altogether is crazy. It’s against human nature. We always want to know how we measure up. Kids want to know. And parents want to know. So it’s okay to focus on grades.

As long as where it matters, we focus on learning.

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4 Responses to Why Focusing on Grades is Okay

  1. I see the grade incentive a lot in teaching undergraduate engineering students who, by and large, would not choose to study mathematics if they didn’t have to. I don’t like it: I prefer students to be internally motivated.
    The reality is that most of them are not.

    With General Education as widespread as it is in the U.S. many college students are regularly “studying” subjects for which they have little to no interest.

    As an educator I personally have no interest in trying to motivate students who have no interest in a subject. When they are motivated to participate, I’m ready to tell them what I know, and to help them learn

    So, sadly, grades do act as an incentive for students to open their books and do the work.

    • I totally understand, Gary. But you teach college level goodies. If people are teaching their kids, or classroom teachers are teaching the youth, they have to get it done some way.

      Although I am a proponent for discontinuing “forced” education. But that’s another post. 🙂

  2. If we can make the grades about learning instead, then we can make the monster serve us, instead of us slaving to feed the monster. Standards Based Grading, authentic assessment, Project Based Learning, rubric grading are all ways to start addressing that idea. If a grade can start to be feedback to students, it might be useful. As a gauge number that does not relate to learning, it can become about managing the number instead of attending to the underlying issue of importance.

    • Very interesting, John! So instead of criterion referenced testing (which is perfect for training but not so much for educating), we look at more not-so-easy-to-put-your-finger-on skills?

      I’m looking at @ThinkThankThunk’s description of it and I think I’m getting confused.

      I like the feedback/rubric idea, for sure.

      I’m going to look into this more. Thanks for the inspiration!

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