Time To Throw Out Grades In Education?

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

Mark Twain – The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

With the above statement in mind, is it time we take grades and throw them out the window?

That proposition does open up a whole host of issues. Particularly about how a student might go about actually “passing” and attaining an educational certificate. Putting that to one side for a moment lets explore why this might be a positive shift, and more importantly why the science seems to suggest so as well.

Where We’re At…

The workforce in the 21st century is no longer calling out for an abundance of algorithmic workers. Work, whereby a predetermined set of instructions can be followed to reach a desired outcome. Jobs are becoming more creative and more heuristic in nature. This is typically a right brain task, where creativity, originality and adaptability take centre stage. What psychologists found, and are now screaming from the rooftops, is that that same reward structure is not effective in both scenarios.

In generations gone by, it was assumed that work, was something people would avoid. Without proper incentive people would remain inert. This meant that that to get stuff done, you have to encourage people to perform. And so, the infamous “carrot and stick” approach was born. Want to encourage a particular behaviour? Fine, but you better be dangling an attractive reward at the end. Want to discourage a particular action. That’s easy too, just wield a bigger, sharper stick.

Not so fast…

It’s true. in algorithmic tasks, tasks that made up a large percentage of the workforce in the early to mid 20th century, this worked well…really well. Need more labels stuck on cans in less time? You might just get there by offering a bonus for hitting targets. But since the turn of the century, the simplest tasks that make up typical white collar jobs have fallen victim to either offshoring, or more sophisticated software. It’s estimated in the US, only 30% (and declining) of new jobs come from algorithmic tasks. That leaves 70% for more creative heuristic responsibilities.

The really surprising thing is that the aforementioned carrot and stick approach, not only doesn’t work in this scenario, it actually inhibits performance and motivation in tasks where the subject is required to think creatively. Time and again subjects have produced less, unoriginal results, and taken longer to get there when stimulated with an extrinsic reward – in particular, cold hard cash.

In The Classroom….

So how does “people who are paid perform worse on creative tasks” translate into the classroom? If theres one thing that’s regarded as more valuable than money in the classroom…it’s grades! Students are obsessed with them! And who can blame them? It’s how they’ve been measured, compared and categorised their entire lives.

The seemingly impossible question is how do we transform students mindset from “if I learn, then I’ll get a good grade” to “if I learn then I’ll have learnt”? The point that Daniel Pink makes in his wonderful book Drive, is that the temptation to take the low road to attain a reward is just too strong. If there’s a shortcut to an achievement, we’ll almost certainly take it.

Take a selection of math problems for example. If you’re told you’ll be awarded a monetary reward for each correct answer in a given time. You will almost certainly complete a subset of the easiest problems. This is not the point of teaching or learning. This is what happens with student assignments as well…what’s the easiest project I can complete, in order to get the highest grade? Maximum reward, minimal effort.

It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards, who eventually receive them.

Dan Pink – Drive 

The issue, is that in an educational scenario, behind grades, the aim is to deepen understanding. When the reward for your hard work is a step towards mastery, there is no shortcut. The reward for learning, is learning itself.

Do share your thoughts below…