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‘Should Grades Be Based on Classwork?’ And Other Questions We Should Stop Asking

By Alfie Kohn — September 03, 2019 4 min read
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One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career is that the best way to respond to a question is not always to offer an answer. Sometimes one should linger on the question itself, asking what assumptions it conceals and what other questions it displaces. Many questions in education, for example, take for granted the inevitability of traditional practices. That means our job is to challenge the question’s hidden premises. “Wait,” we might say. “You skipped a step.”

Here are five such questions from a virtually unlimited list:

1. Should grades be “standards based?” Should they be posted online? To what extent should they be based on tests/homework/class participation?

You skipped a step. Multiple studies have found that students who get letter or number grades—particularly those who have been led to focus on improving those grades—become less interested in learning, tend to think less deeply, and prefer the easiest possible task, as compared with students who are not graded (but may receive informational feedback when needed).

That means our job is to challenge the question’s hidden premises."

The question, then, isn’t how to grade but how to stop grading. Fortunately, more teachers are doing just that in order to create classrooms that help students of all backgrounds and ability levels become more focused on (and excited about) the learning itself. Even when administrators still demand a final course grade, these teachers never put a letter or number on any individual assignment. And some let their students decide on their own final grade.

2. How can we improve the quality of the curriculum?

You skipped a big step by assuming we should be doing this for students rather than with them. The latter requires not only relinquishing some control but learning more about students’ interests and how to involve them in figuring out which topics to pursue and how best to do so. The same is true of solving tricky discipline problems, or deciding how to arrange and decorate the classroom. A teacher who simply wonders whether (or when or how) to do x isn’t asking the far more consequential question: Must such matters really be decided unilaterally by the adult and imposed on students?

By the same token, if an administrator mulls what speaker or consultant to hire for a professional-development session, he or she has skipped asking the question, “Shouldn’t the teachers be deciding this?”

3. Are we assigning the right amount of homework? Are parents helping their kids too much (or too little) with these assignments?

You skipped right over asking why we should force kids to work what amounts to a second shift after getting home from a full day of school, particularly when there’s no evidence that any kind of homework is beneficial for younger students. (Indeed, recent research casts doubt on its necessity even in high school.) I have heard from many teachers who have eliminated all homework, and they all report fabulous results, with students experiencing less stress and greater interest in learning without sacrificing achievement. To focus on the quantity, or even the quality, of something is to discourage questions about whether it needs to be done at all. This is especially unfortunate when that something may be the greatest extinguisher of curiosity ever devised.

4. Are we making progress at closing the achievement gap?

Wait—how are you defining achievement? If you skipped that step, it will probably be defined by default as raising standardized test scores. Unfortunately, tests measure what matters least, intellectually speaking. They mostly reflect two things: the size of the houses near a school and how much time has been set aside to train students to be better test-takers. It is common for a rise in test scores to accompany (indeed, to contribute to) a decline in the quality of teaching and learning.

Because “achievement gap” usually just means “test score gap,” attempts to narrow it often entail transforming low-scoring schools into test-prep factories. This may succeed in raising scores, but at a substantial cost to the cause of genuine equity. (Much the same is true of closing the digital gap. Greater access to computers doesn’t help—and actually may hurt—if they’re used mostly for traditional drill-and-skill instruction.)

5. Should we praise students’ ability or their effort?

Too often we fail to ask why praising children for anything—offering a verbal doggie biscuit for pleasing the adult—is necessary or constructive. Regardless of one’s criteria (ability or effort), praise is often construed by the recipient as manipulative. A substantial research literature has shown that people typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing because now their primary goal is to get the reward or praise. The most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment; it’s less about feedback (which is purely informational) or encouragement than about evaluation.

Get the idea? To ask how we can motivate our students is to skip the step of distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation—which is critical because the latter tends to undermine the former. To ask who should get into the gifted or honors program is to ignore whether segregating kids by alleged ability makes sense in the first place. To ask which admissions criteria best predict success is to blow past the question of whether selective schools should be looking for students who are easiest to educate rather than those who most need what they have to offer. And so on.

In general, we should pause to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing, whether it’s necessary or desirable, rather than prematurely focusing on the details of implementation. That way, even if we decide to continue with the status quo, at least we’ve grappled with the most meaningful questions.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘You Skipped a Step’

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