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.