By, Susan Rose
When parents are asked what they wish for their children, their answers are usually something along the lines of health, happiness, independence and success. We don’t typically answer, “straight A’s on report cards”, yet grades can cause a lot of tension among families during the formative years of our kids’ childhoods. Is this stress on perfection going to be the magic ticket to helping our youth lead the kinds of lives we envision for their futures?
There is much talk in today’s educational research about the overemphasis in modern society on grades. In The Value of Education Forgotten, Heidi Krick offers a view similar to the philosophy we are working toward at Grandview, as we implement more methods to ensure true, lasting learning.
While grades are currently the traditional tool we use for measuring and reporting individual skills, as we travel the pathway toward learning objectives, we want to emphasize true learning over the importance of grades. As Head of School Jackie Westerfield once said, “We don’t want to think of grades as these polished gems of achievement.” Grades are not the final goal when it comes to learning.
Grades are reported electronically, on an ongoing basis, as a way to keep communication open about what is happening in the classroom. However, we hope parents will note trends, rather than focusing on each, individual assignment. We further hope the ultimate reflection with students will be that they feel they are learning interesting and useful information, rather than focusing on the points they have received on a given assignment. An equally valuable reflection for the learner is to assess the effort that they put into that assignment. Pride in effort is true reason to celebrate.
There is a large body of research showing that focus on grades actually decreases motivation. On the subject of assessment, Maria Montessori said, “Grades, like other external rewards, have little lasting effect on a child’s efforts or achievements.” A recent blog post discussed The Psychology of Grades and why this phenomenon occurs. Similarly, Harry Lewis, former Harvard Dean, investigates grades-as-incentives in Psychology Today. Lewis references an article in the Harvard Crimson from 1885 in which the system of grading students was called “an empty game of score maximization,” and addresses some of the negative effects of grades, especially when they are viewed as the end-all and be-all. In addition to giving students a safe platform for experiencing failure, our grading system can help students develop a work ethic. We just have to remember, however, that the grades are not the final objective– effort and intellectual growth are.
As a college preparatory program, we will continue to use grades, but we are working toward an increased emphasis on creating self-motivated learners who are reinforced by the learning itself and who are prepared with the 21st century skills employers say are necessary in today’s world. We are fostering this academic growth by increasing authentic learning experiences at every grade level and across the curriculum. It has been found that when motivation and constructive, descriptive feedback increase, grades naturally increase, even when they are de-emphasized.
Grandview also encourages learners to self-advocate and to take control of their education whenever possible. We want students to express to teachers when they are struggling with school content, processes or assessments, and to feel safe and comfortable in doing so. We want them to have choices and to explore their interests as they obtain needed skills. In her article, Starting with the Why, Student-Driven Learning, Shelley Wright discusses the value in enabling students to become a central part of their educational experience. Grandview is implementing more of these kinds of experiences each year through various levels of projects and authentic learning experiences within and among classes.
One unexpected benefit of grades is that they allow our students the opportunity to fail, a necessary life lesson, within the safe environment of school. The article Why Failure is Crucial, reflects the value and the necessity of experiencing failure. The author also mentions project based learning, similar to what we do at Grandview, as an authentic platform for enabling students to work out trial and error methods of problem solving.
Along similar lines, an excellent book I have recently recommended to many friends and parents is The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. A new book recommended by college counselor Mary Ellen Piscatello, How to Raise an Adult, addresses similar issues. These books offer interesting perspectives for parents of children at all age levels. Lahey addresses the conflict many of us feel as we raise children who are careening toward the ominous world of college admissions, and who are programmed, for a number of reasons–both societal and personal–to ensure that our kids have the best possible chances on this journey. On one hand, we hear that a certain GPA is one of the most important factors in enabling our children to achieve their college goals. On the other hand, we are told we are pressuring our children too much and need to let them take charge of their own education. The author helps sort through this conflict by demonstrating evidence that the sooner students take responsibility for their own learning, the more likely they are to experience success in life when they are on their own.
While grades do serve certain functions in a child’s education, let’s try to remember the truly important aspects of learning happen outside the parameters of the report card.