Grades Do Grow on Trees

Just Take What You Need!

We all want what we can’t have. I, for example, have never been able to dunk a basketball or learn to drive a motorcycle. I have tried both, injured myself in the process several times, and come to the conclusion that I am not ideally suited to doing either. This is OK. Everybody has things that they can’t do, or things that they want that they will likely never possess — my wife and I would love to own a house in the Caribbean — along with most other Canadian’s during the months of November to March, and I will likely be shovelling snow and wearing parkas in my dotage.

As individuals, this longing for something more, something that we do not presently have, is a universal and perpetual condition.

We also share desires as a society — we instinctively want things that we believe are valuable and hard to achieve or obtain. These things widely vary from Cabbage Patch Dolls to college acceptance to followers on social media.

This tendency has been described as the theory of scarcity. Wikipedia defines this as:

Scarcity, in the area of social psychology, works much like scarcity in the area of economics. Simply put, humans place a higher value on an object that is scarce, and a lower value on those that are abundant. The thought that we, as humans, want something we cannot have drives us to desire the object even more.

Education, in many ways the child of industry, has from its inception been influenced and even guided by economic thinking, and the theories around scarcity and abundance are no exception. As Ken Robinson describes, the whole system was designed to provide workers for industry. It became very good at training and bulk sorting children into groups of appropriate sizes for the tasks that industry required:

People very quickly began to recognize the benefits of the highest levels of education to quality of life and social mobility, and would aspire to gain access. However the system was designed first, to restrict access to education, and second, to filter and sift and remove students over time so as to let relatively few through to this top level of learning, making the jobs predicated on this kind of learning scarce, ensuring demand for their services, and establishing monetary compensation, and consequently social status for these professions that was much, much greater than other jobs.

Social capital, economic incentive, relative scarcity — these three things put together created not only a desire to have access to these professions, but established a value system and ranking for all other possible career pathways. Many of the stigmas created by these rankings are still in effect today: the belief that mental work is more meaningful than physical work is one of the most prevalent, I think.

We have built an economy in schools, and our currency is grades. What you can buy with this currency is opportunity. Sometimes, when grades are not enough, we create secondary markets (entrance exams, I am looking at you) as a way to verify our grade currency — a sort of metaphorical biting of the coin to test its metal (and our mettle).

Within this economy there are certain ‘truths’, concepts that force grades to be assigned based on certain assumptions. These truths have massive implications for students. It is assumed, for example that not all students can achieve at the highest grade level, and that students who master content quickly are deserving of higher marks than students who require repetition. These assumptions help to create scarcity, which in the grade economy boils down to:

There are only a certain number of percentage points available and these must be shared amongst all students. Kind of like in Oliver Twist…

Please Sir, can I have some more grades?

Having too many A’s in a class means the course is too easy and that the assessment practice is suspect and therefore meaningless. “Tougher” grading (you’ll notice I don’t say more effective or appropriate) that results in fewer high marks is preferred; it supports the system’s need to deny access to additional levels of learning. Most teachers try, intentionally, to fall somewhere in the middle, and in doing so, they limit the possible number of grades available, which also serves the system’s purpose.

The motto under the coat of arms of those who cleave to the traditional assessment economy of education would be something like this:

Objectivity. Rigidity. Perpetuity.

Objectivity because they conflate it with fairness. That removing the human elements from teaching, learning, and assessment makes testing and grading more fair and true. Rigidity because it suggests a stable structure on which to hang grades on students with confidence. The exam is worth 30 percent because that’s the way it is — feel better now? Perpetuity because it means you never have to question your practice or change in any way. Johnny, I gave you a C in Language Arts in Grade 2 — you should consider a career in the Fast Food Arts — this is a reflection on you Johnny, not me….right?

I honestly wonder, how many teachers would agree that this is what they got into education to do — to sift and judge and create barriers for children and to limit the possibilities for their lives. I would hope that the answer would be none, but I am not so sure.

After all, most of us still work within this system, this economy, and we still allow the assumptions and dictates about the currency of grades to determine how we run our classrooms. Our work tacitly supports what the system does. In many ways, we are the bystanders watching a bully harass and harm a student on the playground. We know what is happening and we are uncomfortable with it, but we lack the courage, or the support network, or the knowledge to step up and say “Stop. Enough is enough.”

Grades, in my world, do grow on trees. There is no limit to them because assessment lives to serve the needs of students and their growth, not to support a system that wants to tell them from day 1 that they cannot and should not do certain things by hoarding percentage points and letters behind assessments that are not equitable, purposeful, or applicable.

If we are ever to move away from a society and an educational culture that separates, divides, and creates false scarcity, then we need to walk away from the currency of grades as an end to themselves, and as the final word on the potential of a human being. Instead, we need to focus on learning and maximizing the ability of each person to grow academically, emotionally, socially, physically, and for me, spiritually. We need to place value, not in grades, but in people.

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