A Grade As Motivation or Unnecessary Made Up Measure

Pretty much every month someone in class has a problem with Zander’s chapter about Giving an A. This month’s dialogue questions the motivational power of grades (with little Beatles whimsy thrown in for good measure). One student wrote the following in their blog:

We all live in a yellow submarine or we should live in an Octopus’s Garden. I am torn with the ideology that he pronounces. I understand what he is saying but grades and competition are not always a comparison or a barrier for rick and moving outside the box. Depending on the demeanor or personality make-up of a person these things cause the very things that the author says they hinder. For some grades and goals and standards are the fuel that drives their cars. They need them as much as they hinder others. For others they are a compass; the study is like an ocean and they are in a small boat in the middle of it at high noon. There is no point of reference and on their own there is no way to know if they are going forward or backward. It would be nice if by the elimination of grades and competition there would be an explosion of risk takers, ready to shed off the clothing of anxiety and dread and go running blissfully through the field daisies. Love, peace and rock & role. It does sound like something out of the hippie era of free love and anti-establishment. I love his pronouncements intellectually but experimentally it does not meet my reality. I gets back to perception and changing that within ourselves. For me, in this masters degree, grades have been a validation and a driving force to go beyond what I thought I could do to launch me into the world of possibilities. Even grades and competition have to be taught, grasped and view from the proper perspective. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if the world of possibilities was not so twisted and skewed by the individual’s personal make-up. That kind of sounds like multiple intelligence theory and education. – Mark West

My two-cents: It’s not surprising at all that little ones will look to their instructors to map out what educational success means. The ability to assess learning is completely dependent on external feedback, because, quite frankly the little learners thinking and assessment capabilities haven’t been finished …er, baking. The other thing is that grades are meant to be an easy way to communicate the value system between the teacher, the learner and the learner’s parents. Once the learner is an adult the need for external gratification should be a very very low part of the assessment structure because the learner should be able to determine internally whether the thing/process/concept has been functionally integrated into the learner’s thinking/process. At a Master’s you should know whether you know something on a far more real, intricate level than most tests or assignments can accomplish. For the most part grades are then meant to quantify the learning for other interested third parties like accreditation boards and future employers. But the grade itself is not a part of learning and cannot hope to really communicate that beyond what the learner should already know inside. It’s like putting a child’s training wheels on a Harley, if you can afford the ride you shouldn’t need the assist.

What you might be getting from grades is what can also be accomplished by being a part of an active learning community, the emotional connection of sharing what is being learned and what has been learned with others.

The truth is that it is all made up and we all chose how we navigate the process and how we make meaning out of our efforts. Grades have their function, but quite often they are the vestigial left-over from an early era and age, and there are better way to accomplish the need for affirmation and participation. A grade is a lousy substitute for a hug from the learning community.