Do letter grades kill learning?

In an RSA Animate video, Dan Pink explores the relationship between the promise of monetary reward and productivity. His findings are somewhat counterintuitive. He finds that rather than increase productivity, the promise of larger monetary rewards act as a DIS-incentive. He cites two studies that provide very compelling evidence for this claim. If you haven’t seen it, the video is a worthwhile watch.

A couple of years ago I presented this video to a Psychology 12 class in our unit on Motivation. After showing the video I asked for the students’ feedback. I was trying to get them to ponder whether Dan Pink’s finding holds true for any extrinsic motivators, in particular, letter grades in school. As the conversation digressed, we got to the point where we found that a lot of students had “checked out” of school by early elementary school, because they could never seem to “make the grade.” With grades as the focus, school was frustrating and pointless.

I bring this issue up because in the past few years there has been a resurgence of interest in project-based learning, in which the students pursue the answer to an inquiry question, and present their findings in a formal format. Everything in the project is negotiable; the presentation format, the inquiry question itself, and the various types of research for finding answers. Surely, this is a creative venture, and in my experience, in the initial stages of an inquiry project, kids tend to be quite turned on to learning. This kind of creative activity is exactly the thing that Pink suggests to be motivating for people.

The problem is that teachers have a sense of obligation to provide a quantitative summative evaluation at the end of the project (i.e. a score or grade). It takes a very brave teacher indeed to say, “You are going to get full marks on this project just for doing it, no matter how it turns out.” In fact, I suspect that a teacher who would set up such a scenario would be in for a lot of flack from parents and possibly from students themselves. And yet, the research of Dan Pink and others would indicate that this is precisely what the teacher should do in order to motivate the students to be productive. If indeed letter grades as extrinsic motivators can be compared to pay bonuses (and I think they can), then eliminating them from the equation would seem like the right course of action.

Can we imagine a world without letter grades? The answer seems to be connected to how schools are viewed. If schools are to be focussed on learning, it would seem that letter grades provide disincentive and that intrinsic factors such as autonomy, creativity and mastery, which are at the heart of project based learning, should be left alone to spur the students on. As the students’ projects near completion, the question posed should never be “Is this good enough for an ‘A’?”, but rather, “This is fascinating! Where can we take it?” The former encourages a focus on minimum requirements, the latter on exploration and real learning.

The work of the Nobel Prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman bolsters this assertion. Kahneman’s research shows that generally, people are more governed by fear of loss than they are by desire to gain. Extending that idea to the classroom, one can see that letter grades, which are based on penalties (Mistakes lead to marks lost.), cause a fear of loss, rather than a desire to gain. The focus, then, is on protecting the bottom line (good grades), rather than on exploring concepts.

If letter grades are found to be detrimental to student learning, we must ask ourselves why we insist on using them. Surely the answer lies in the role of the school as a sorting place. Letter grades are used to determine who will move on to higher level institutions (and ultimately to higher pay and esteem) and who will not. Such a role does not focus on the individual’s learning at all. In this current scenario, the school becomes an agency for social control rather than a place of learning.

What a teacher does

School starts Tuesday and I was perusing a few short stories that I’d like my Grade 9 kids to read. I’ve been to a fair number of professional development workshops targeted at teaching the “21st Century Learner” – whatever that means. A resounding theme is that the role of the teacher must change – that he is no longer the gatekeeper of information, but the… what? … the guide at the side?

While I perused my stories, it struck me that very few, if any of the Grade 9 students I teach would choose to read the stories I’ll assign them. The stories are written using grammar structures that they won’t be familiar with. They contain themes that will need to be elucidated. Their plots are sometimes pedantic, and their endings, in keeping with their themes, are not always definite. Nope. On their own the kids wouldn’t touch these stories, and if they did, they would have little context for comprehending them. They would be missing out on something wonderful and important. I show them the stories. That’s what a teacher does.