Tag Archives: Alfie Kohn

No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

You might think I’m crazy. After all, things (and people) must be measured. And they must be measured against other things and other people. Only this morning in a staff meeting our school’s principal talked about how the only way to improve a thing is to be able to measure said thing.  And while my principal was talking about system goals and not individual humans, we’ve been acting (forever) as if the same thing might be the case for our students.  We must score them, grade them, award points, measure them up.  Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish the good from the bad, the exceptional from the mediocre, the mastery from the failure, the outcome from the starting point? Without a system of measurement, how would colleges know who to admit? How would companies and businesses know who to hire? How would men and women know who to date? You’d have pure chaos, that’s what you’d have!

I’ve written in earlier blog entries about the distasteful nature of how our public schools tend to sort human beings–through activities, through classes, through tracks, through grades, through standardized tests, through a series of hoops to be jumped into or at or through towards a diploma and towards the next step, be it college, a job, or prison.  And I’ve talked about my discomfort with all of that while working in a system that seems to require it of me. I must give grades.  I must have some “meaningful” way of determining grades.  Thus, I measure.  Is it wise? Is it, in fact, meaningful? Is it humane?

My colleagues complain all the time about incoming freshmen from middle school not having been fully measured, not having been accountable to grades, having been socially promoted regardless of skill or knowledge level.  It is true that students come to us unprepared for high school, but I am not so sure that social promotion is to blame.  I don’t have a ton of knowledge about how middle schools operate; I know little about even the one that feeds my high school, which is sad, I think.  But I do know that what happens inside the school day for any particular student is only a tiny factor in a multitude of variables that shape their intellectual, interpersonal, motivational, and emotional health.  The fact that we grade them or not I believe is a minuscule factor in the equation.  If social promotion were to stop forever at the lower levels, the reality is that no program exists for remediation and services for recalcitrant 8th graders–and they would come to us anyway, as unprepared as ever.  If you could throw gobs and gobs of money at the lower levels for interventions, then maybe we’d be in a better place–but still, in the end the grades kids get would have little to do with how well they would do later.  What would matter is whether or not they have the knowledge or skill and the proper motivational mindset for academic success.

I guess my beef is not with measurement itself, but in the way we measure, ultimately, by letter grades. And grades are bad, as I’ve said before, because they are often arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable, and never revealing in a specific, meaningful way.  They are extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, that coerce students into compliance.  I have a colleague of mine in my mind’s ear right now, and he’s saying, “What’s wrong with carrots and sticks? They’re everywhere!”  And I would say, sure, they’re everywhere, and most of us have been conditioned to think this way.  But that doesn’t make it good, it just makes it ubiquitous.  Especially in the realm of education, the life of the mind, and in relationships with other humans, wouldn’t it be infinitely better if people acted a certain way for its own sake, because they understood its worth and value and inherent goodness, and NOT because they were going to get a cookie?!

So I’ve started a little thought experiment that I’d like to share in this blog (which might become a series) about what a carrot-less and stick-less classroom might look like. And I’m realizing that in this particular entry I’m only about 300 words away from my self-imposed 1000 word limit.  So even before I say the next thing, whatever that might be, I would extend the invitation to whoever is listening out there to chime in on the subject.  Whether you are a teacher or not, I’d invite you to imagine with me how a class without grades could possibly work.  Any takers?

Okay, let me begin.  It has to start with the premise that the learning is the thing at the center, and that WHAT we are doing and WHY we are doing it is infinitely more important than HOW WELL we are doing it.  And so, in the spirit of moving forward with this, the WHAT and the WHY are from the beginning ever-present, super-explicit, never fuzzy, so that no student at any time could possibly be confused about what they’re doing and why.  So, simply enough, it begins with a shift in focus.  And then, secondly, to eliminate the distraction, and because, ultimately, there does have to be some kind of performance benchmark, we eliminate grades altogether and replace them with two marks: Pass and In Progress. In the one-hundred and eleven words I have left I will, rather than continue with this initial description, instead anticipate some questions: Wouldn’t a system like this just encourage kids to do the bare minimum to “pass”? If we’re not supposed to obsess about how well students are doing, how will students ever improve? How would one determine what level of skill or knowledge earns a “pass”? How would the really motivated or highly skilled individuals distinguish themselves? Isn’t it important to have a hierarchy of a certain number of marks, let’s say 5, to effectively sort our humans? Is the writer of this blog some kind of communist?  More on this stuff later.


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Difficult Work: It’s A Good Thing They Like Me

Teachers who say that it doesn’t matter whether or not students like them have something wrong with their brains. It seems to me that one of a teacher’s greatest tools, an ace in the hole, so to speak, or, conversely, his greatest deficit, is whether or not his students like, love, or hate him. Here’s the bottom line—Can I relate to young people? Because if I could not, I know that they would have eaten me alive years ago and I would have gone down as one of those statistics: most new teachers drop out of the profession in three years’ time. It didn’t use to be this way. In the 70’s and early 80’s, when I was a lad, there were teachers that students hated that remained in the profession until they retired. Today, students still hate some of their teachers, don’t get me wrong, but unless the professional in question has incredible skill at commanding some kind of respect or attention not simply based on her authority, this person is probably history.

Authority just does not mean the same thing it used to mean. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing so I will say that it’s both. We used to respect authority because it was authority and because if you did not you were in all kinds of shit. Today, at least in schools, we respect authority because that authority demonstrates a respect for us. That’s a good thing. But here’s the flip side of the coin. Students today will repeatedly and openly bring iPods and cell phones and game boys into the classroom, they will openly defy a teacher, or call him a name to his face, or tug on his pony tail, or slap him on the back in the hallway for fun. They are comfortable doing these things. They’re not always trying to be mean; they just do not see these behaviors as inappropriate in any way. Teachers are their equals. More broad generalizations, I know, but I think it is true from my own anecdotal experience that students do things today in classrooms and in schools that my peers or I would never have dreamed of doing in our teenage school days. Let’s flip the coin over again, however, and we find that today teaching is more about building relationships and less about exercising power over our minions. Now, I have to earn the power over my minions. And I have these four tools at my disposal: my intellect, my passion about the craft of teaching and the process of learning, my general good will toward my students, and for the most part, because of the music or the hair or the shoes or just because they think I’m a pretty good guy, they like me. And it’s a good thing. So, it’s safe to say, and I think the research bears me out on this one, that one thing that motivates a student is a teacher that she likes. But I’ve got lots of students who like me just fine, or even, like me a whole lot, who are, nevertheless, failing my classes. There’s another difficulty.

It’s Not Enough That They Like Me

There is another tool at my disposal; it’s only a question of putting it into good practice—another notch in the list of difficulties around teaching. And perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all, because, while most studies prove it to be the most effective way to motivate, it is perhaps the less intuitive and the more rigorous way to go. All I have to do is CHANGE MY BRAIN, and thus, by an almost supernatural imposition of will, I can change the brains of my students. Carol Dweck, Ph. D., in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, says we must work to change our own minds, and then the minds of our students, from what she calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” And voila!—all will be well and right with the world. I’m not being facetious. I believe this. It’s just really hard to do. Quickly, let me see if I can unpack this: A fixed mindset sees things as predetermined; skills, talents, special proclivities are meted out at birth and can never change. You are either smart or you’re not. You’re either talented or not. It’s a recipe for stagnation and mediocrity. Fixed mindset people are often encouraged by parents, teachers, and coaches (who may have also been fixed mindset kinds of folk), with the message that they are smart and talented—and maybe they actually are, but because the message that they are already a particular way is pounded into their little brains, whenever they are faced with evidence to the contrary, i.e., a difficult task, they get easily frustrated and end up thinking the opposite about themselves. I am not smart or talented after all. In fact, I am stupid and without skill. And then, rather than risk further failure, they give up, or worse, they don’t try, avoiding any revelation of their lack of intelligence or skill. On the contrary, a “growth mindset” person comes at every difficulty as a learning experience and every challenge as valuable in and of itself. Every setback is an opportunity, and only when these folks are being stretched, not victorious, do they feel successful. And they work really hard at stuff. They were not successful because their performance was flawless and they “got it” right away, but because they labored intensely toward a goal they found meaningful and rewarding. And, in short, Dweck says that a combination of a nurturing environment and high challenge are the key to fostering a “growth mindset” and instilling a desire for success within students and other humans. And she, right alongside my hero Alfie Kohn (Punished By Rewards), says that praise and blame, the carrot and the stick, are ineffective motivators.

Jessica, a friend of mine, recently sent, and attached to a posting on an earlier one of my blog entries, a lecture by Dan Pink which beautifully summarizes the most recent findings about motivation in the workplace. Three elements, Pink says, maximize productivity from workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I’m already beyond a thousand words in this particular blog entry, so I will try to bring this to closure quickly. Can we apply the conclusions of Dweck and Pink to the field of education and the question of what motivates students? Hell yeah. And isn’t this good news? Hell yeah. Because now we know what will motivate students! Let’s see what we’ve got: given a nurturing environment (a teacher who cares for students and in turn is cared for or “liked” by students), high expectations, teacher/student autonomy, and a strong sense of purpose, we ought to be simply cooking with fire. Let’s get rid of unnecessary punishments and rewards. There will be no stopping us then. I’m getting really excited.

Wait a minute. Houston, we have a problem. I feel some air inexplicably escaping from a hole the size of a pin in my big-ass hot air balloon. Do students experience a nurturing environment? Well, as much as you could expect from a 1 to 160+ teacher/student ratio. Are students given high expectations? We do the best that we can, but inconsistently, and some students graduate from high school who are barely or only functionally literate. How much autonomy do teachers and students have? No Child Left Behind and the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has swept a lot of teacher creativity and student choice right under the carpet. What about the punitive aspects of schooling, the punishments and rewards that are part and parcel of the daily, monthly, yearly routine: praise and blame, gold stars and frowny faces, A’s and F’s? Surely, these are receding from their traditional dominance in the motivational strategies of teachers, parents and students—aren’t they? Holy cow. One thing at a time. One thing at a time. Please stay tuned.

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