How to give grades when you know that giving grades is wrong

Ira David Socol
Apr 9 · 18 min read

Motivation? Do grades provide that?
…at any age?

“My school requires that I give grades.” We all hear this a lot, because it is usually true. “We are required to use a certain method of determining grades,” is perhaps less common but still true for many.

But what happens when you know that ‘traditional’ grading is wrong?

When we interviewed prospective librarians in my last job we’d ask, “What would you not do, even if ordered to?” then, “What would you still do even if ordered to stop?”

We were looking for the professional and moral redlines we would hope anyone who works with children would have. After all, in the United States, at least before the age of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, we even expected soldiers to refuse to carry out immoral orders. At the post-Civil War Andersonville trial, and again at Nuremberg after the Second World War, and again at the My Lai trials during the Vietnam conflict, the US made it clear that the “dictates of one’s conscience” had to take precedence over military orders. It is not just people in the military, just last year three Florida police officers were sent to prison for following orders — and believe me, that’s not an isolated situation.

So the first question is, can you live with an assessment system that you believe hurts children? What are your redlines?

Now, as the video clip above makes clear, disobeying orders, refusing to follow the rules, is done at one’s “peril.” And as I’ve learned over and over in my life, it’s hard to add courage into adults that lack that virtue. So, all that I write after this is only for the courageous. I cannot ask for more from people than they are capable of giving.

Warning: this is a very long Medium post. Long because I am trying to explore how we, as educators behave toward students, as well as the motivations behind those behaviors and — additionally — the information and/or misinformation behind those motivations. In the ongoing conversations about grading, I wondered, what lies behind the questions we are asking?

What are grades supposed to do? Why do we give them?

“In (what was not yet) the United States, the practice of grading began at Yale in 1785. Its president, Ezra Stiles, wrote in his diary that his class consisted of “Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores (Boni), ten Pejores.” This essentially arbitrary division into four groups is probably the origin of the 4.0 grade scale still in use [by universities] today,” Benjamin Winterhalter writes, then notes that “the influence of education reformer Horace Mann, who drew inspiration from the Prussian [preparation for a universal military conscription] system, grades spread to American primary schools in the early 19th century.”

Winterhalter, like myself, has studied the origins of our school design, and both of us have read the original texts. As he notes, “Mann and his disciples believed quantized grades were more democratic than the European tradition of formal titles. Our modern system of sorting younger students into stepwise “grades” proliferated alongside the practice of grading itself—that is, the recording of marks and calculation of averages. Before that, students of different ages and ability levels often learned together, especially in rural areas.” In other words, the system we think of now as “traditional” was actually a radical attempt to redesign human learning — moving away from the family and community-based multiage patterns that had existed for all time, and moving away from the true human tradition of finding value in every community member and moving to an analytical system built at a time before education reformers had any real understanding of the human brain.

“After the military blunder of Prussian drill and line formation against the levée en masse of the French revolutionary army in the Battle of Jena–Auerstedt in 1806, reformers and German nationalists urged for major improvements in education.” — Wikipedia would this cause the development of a system of education designed to foster creativity or compliance?

“Reformers like Mann believed that hierarchical rankings would motivate students. Mann dreamed of a uniform, national education experience—based in some notion of democratic citizenship and equality,” Winterhalter adds, while Robert Marzano — whose attitudes toward evaluating educational environments, let’s be clear, I detest, lists his sense of why grades are given, “Measurement experts such as Peter Airasian (1994) explain that educators use grades primarily (1) for administrative purposes, (2) to give students feedback about their progress and achievement, (3) to provide guidance to students about future course work, (4) to provide guidance to teachers for instructional planning, and (5) to motivate students.”

In Marzano’s ASCD book Transforming Classroom Grading he notes that in his research teachers list “feedback for students” and “motivation” as their primary purposes in grading, while administrators see grading as a system designed to give feedback and to provide an administrative record that defines graduation and determines entrance to colleges. Neither sees much in terms of grading as self-evaluation — what Marzano calls “Instructional Planning" — that is, believing that grading can help evaluate what the adults do.

MSU professor: “You give out more As [4.0] than anyone in the college"

Grad student Ira: “If you taught as well as I do your kids would all get As too.”

So, is grading about feedback and motivation as many teachers seem to believe?

Honor Roll/Principal’s List Corridor Display (via Zully Linares Pinterest site)
Another view, and an understandable reaction to a ranking system perceived as random and unfair. Along with “my child can beat up your honor roll student” bumper stickers (as horrid as those sound), there’s my all time ‘favorite’ on an ancient rusting station wagon on Michigan’s West Coast — “I’m having sex with an Honor Roll Student at [Blank] High School”

Well, yes, it is a form of feedback, but there are many kinds of feedback. Just speaking personally, I’ve heard, “pay attention you little retard,” “we think you have a kind of ‘flexible morality’ that can be useful,” and my favorite, in grad school, “you write like a European.” To that last one, I replied, “thank you,” and was then told, “that’s not a compliment.” All are feedback but, for me, none were particularly useful — even if two of the three had profound impacts on my life.

“I don’t doubt Horace Mann had good intentions,” Winterhalter writes, “…But like so many good intentions, Mann’s have paved the road to hell. And the practice of grading, in my opinion—of separating students into “better” and “worse” according to their performance on preordained tasks—has been the steamroller [that has built that road].”

As for motivation, here’s where this story truly begins. And it’s a story that mixes my philosophical viewpoint on public education — a viewpoint built of long experience combined with an awful lot of research both hands on and meta in form — with my limited understanding of economics and the theories of John Nash. Limited, because though I’ve taken a lot of economics classes and received ‘good grades' in all, I’m no economist, and I’m no statistician.

There are two forms of motivation observed in human behavior, intrinsic and extrinsic. The former is all internal and drives most informal learning — I see the waves move on shore and I want to know about it, or, I’m hungry and so I want to, find a good restaurant, cook a good meal, learn how to hunt. The latter is all externally driven and drives capitalism, many religions, and our educational system — we will make you miserable if you live in poverty so you better get a job, or, if you behave that way you will be damned and burn in fire forever, or, if you don’t do well on this test we will make you miserable (take the class again, summer school, get beaten at home). That latter is usually combined with external rewards — if you work really hard and follow our rules you’ll get rich, or if you are good you will live forever in paradise, or if you do all your homework you “will make your parents proud" or “you will get into that fancy college.”

Deeper learning tends to be associated with intrinsic motivation, “Infants are experts at playing,” writes Carlos Perez, “with an amazing ability to generate novel structured behaviors in unstructured environments that lack clear extrinsic reward signals.” Jae Duk Seo summarizes Perez’s research intentions, “From the moment of being born, we human beings are excellent at navigating our environments. (And these environments can be random, spontaneous and lack general structures.) In other words we are excellent at modeling the world that surrounds us, and thankfully even infants do a better job at this compared to most advanced robots. (So they are not taking over the world yet.)”

Jae continues, “But the main question is how can we learn to do this? Well the general idea is that we have VERY powerful built in systems (such as object attention/localization and number sense etc…) in which helps us with the task of modeling our world around us. Another idea (that this paper investigates) is that we are motivated by curiosity about the world that surrounds us. And by exploring a new task (in which are tasks that are novel but still somewhat understandable.) we are able to develop a very good model around our surroundings. One another important fact to point out here is the notion of cycle, once we get used to the task, we search out for more, new exciting stuffs. And thanks to this cycle we are able to develop our model into more complex one, so it’s self-supervised learning. Additionally, the author introduces the topic of “scientist in the crib”, and I found a good video related to this subject.” (italics added)

The scientist in the crib.

Nothing above suggests that extrinsic motivation does not exist. Of course it does. As humans we tend to want things — whether that’s innate or cultural really doesn’t matter for the argument here — and because we want things the systems humans have built have consistently been built around the extrinsic. You see, systems — government, religious, economic, educational — cannot control anyone if intrinsic motivation is driving behavior, so systems will always form around extrinsic rewards — staying out of prison, getting to heaven, having wealth above that of your neighbors, or… yes, getting “good grades.”

My son is an example of the problems systems face. When he was a child I quickly discovered that there was really no punishment, and really no reward, that might change his behavior. He was — and to a great extent still is — a person driven completely from inside. No candy bribe could distract him in a supermarket at age two, no grade threat could get him to do boring work in school. He lay outside the normal parameters of system (parental or educational) control. I don’t think my son, in that, is such a rare person, rather I know that too many internally motivated kids are ‘broken’ by system psychological violence, and thus, the following paragraph becomes almost universally true.

Humans are natural learners. They learn from the minute of birth, and for the first four or five years their learning — curiosity driven, non-temporal, multi-sensory — occurs at blinding speed. That’s the intrinsic period. Then our children go to school, and the process — now driven by extrinsic rewards — slows to a crawl.

Tide pools in the rocks along Long Island Sound were my most important natural science class.

Now, if intrinsic motivation is better for driving deeper learning, but systems need extrinsic motivation to operate, we have a conundrum.

“Beginning in infancy and throughout the life span, humans are motivated by newness, change, and excitement. Habituation, the tendency to lose interest in a repeated event and gain interest in a new one, is one of the most fundamental human reflexes. If the thermostat were to suddenly turn the air conditioning on, you would hear the loud humming sound begin, but within minutes you couldn’t even hear it if you tried. Habituation, a fundamental property of the nervous system, provides mechanisms to ignore the environment when it presents no immediate threat or reward, and to focus attention on potentially important new input. Habituation is also an elementary form of inhibition, the complex cognitive maneuver that allows us to override urges. This reflects the function of the frontal lobes of the brain. Finally, habituation is considered to be the simplest form of learning. Habituation is important to understand in relation to children’s motivation, because .” — Wendy L. Ostroff (Understanding How Young Children Learn, ASCD)

As Ostroff notes in the above quote — habituation and its conjoined function automaticity exist in opposition to deep learning. I have been known to say, “if your children get off the same bus every morning and enter through the same door and follow the same route to the same classroom to the same seat, you have shut down curiosity and readiness for learning by beginning the day with a Pavlovian structure.” But schools are built on habituation and automaticity. Schools are built on those structures through the extrinsic rewards system that grades represent.

Which brings us to grading and John Nash. And first, the grading game.

You give grades. Good grades are met, usually, with relief, as in, “whew… got through that.” Bad grades are met with either, “the teacher sucks,” or, “the teacher hates me,” and both are valid conclusions given that grading is “an absolutely uncalibrated instrument.” (Finkelstein, 1913) Because no two teachers utilize the same measures in the same way, and because so much subjective judgment goes into grading anything, along with so many things unrelated to skill or knowledge gain — attendance, behavior, homework, et al — that kids literally have no idea what a grade means.

If you don’t know what a grade means, how can it motivate effectively? How can it offer real feedback?

“When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, whether numbers or letters, to indicated scholastic attainment of the pupils or students in these institutions, and when we remember how very great stress is laid by teachers and pupils alike upon these marks as real measures or indicators of attainment, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking system. School administrators have been using with confidence an absolutely uncalibrated instrument.” — I. E. Finkelstein (1913)

So within this chaotic ‘system' students try all kinds of strategies to come out on top. There are the pleasers who give the teacher exactly what is expected and typically get the reward they want. There are the strivers who try to do the same but for reasons of skills or home life or previous failures cannot. They are punished repeatedly. And finally, in my taxonomy, there are the don’t cares (though the terms they usually use are harsher). Don’t cares are ‘checked out' and their behavior ranges from doing as little as possible to active subversion. They already know what grade they are likely to get before the class begins, and their reward is tangible — they waste the least time on school of any peer group.

So, we try different things to try to generate changes in learner strategies. In ‘middle school' (then ‘Junior High’) we had one teacher who let us choose a grade that we would all get. On that 100 point scale we chose 94, a marked that seemed beyond excellent considering who was in that classroom, but — we hoped — not beyond all belief. I will tell you that was the most productive class I saw in that school.

Teaching pre-service teachers at Michigan State I began every semester assuming all in the class would get 4.0s. Usually all but two or three — out of 80-90 — would end up with that grade. I mean you had to truly do something crazy to not get there. There was great work across the board, though at first many of those straight A students who filled those education courses begged me, “just tell me what you want me to do.”

In Architecture School at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn I once walked out of a landscape design class after 3 minutes — the room and the prof’s voice bothered me — and I never came back. I was intrigued though by the final project on the syllabus, the conversion of flat farmland into a park. So I worked on that. I spent endless hours on that design. The morning of the last class I put the finished 48"x 36" inch prints — rolled up — in the professor’s mailbox. Pratt was Pass/Fail then, with narrative evaluations and when those evals arrived I had passed the course, “I don’t know who this is, as he apparently never attended class,” the prof wrote, “but this project proves a very strong grasp on all the core ideas we worked on.”

So we keep trying.

For years I’ve attempted to explain student attention in the classroom in economic terms. “Every minute,” I’ve told teachers, “kids are making the microeconomic decision about paying attention to you. Remember, if they pay attention to you there is a significant opportunity cost. If they don’t pay attention to you they might sleep, they might think about or work on stuff in other classes they consider more important, they might daydream, they might text, play games, write notes, anything.” Paying attention to the teacher is not “free,” it means giving up other uses of that time, so why would a kid choose to listen to you?

Reeths-Puffer High School Library, 1996. A math teacher walks in and comes to where the librarian and I are standing, “That kid,” she says, naming a student we all know, “he’d rather get detention and Saturday School than come to my class.” The librarian looked at her, paused, and said, “Well, you have to think about that.”

The grading structures of the past were built on a 200+ year old theory of economics, the ideas of Adam Smith — the god of the American right and the University of Chicago. Smith presumed that the best result for society occurred when every individual maximized their efforts toward wealth. In school, that means that every student would work as hard as possible in every course. But the methods of grading we used — even if Smith was right (and I sure don’t think he was) — defeated that. Teachers graded “on the curve,” they liked to have “grade distribution,” they considered their courses “gateways” with limited admission opportunities. All of these worked against initiative. After all, if a teacher is “grading the curve” the maximum benefit might be for everyone to cooperate and everyone get, say, 10 out of 100. Since the highest mark sets the curve, and in this case everyone gets the same highest mark with a minimum of effort, in this strategy everyone wins. In fact, I’ve seen many situations where teachers have thrown out tests if everyone fails, because, if all students fail, there is a peril for the teacher.

If every student doesn’t follow the same strategy — because students have differing goals — there can be no grading system that works. If every student has different strategies for the same goal, is there a measure? There is, but it becomes binary — the goal was reached or it wasn’t. Pass/Fail yes, but what about growth and change?

You can find the same economic theory holes in almost every version of grading. If you use the points system, what is the real motivation to go beyond the accumulation of the minimum points to pass? For some, yes, for the pleasers there are those extrinsic carrots, but for the don’t cares? If you choose mastery — which always sounds good — you first must operate within a pass/fail binary system or it makes no sense, and second, you must determine what mastery means for a heterogenous student population. Does a kid fail Physical Education if they run too slowly? Fail Language Arts because they read too slowly?

“In an architecture school how can you give grades? In a design studio, how could one fairly or reasonably assign an “A” to this student and a “C” to that? And in courses like mine, sorry, but no one leaves my class knowing 95% of what makes a building stand up.” — Dr. Y.S. Lee, professor of Structural Engineering, Pratt Institute, 1979

What if our grading game used 20th Century economics. What if we looked for the best solution for everyone? Here’s where John Nash comes in, and where the value of encouraged intrinsic motivation comes in.

Because, here’s what I think we want. We want kids working together and supporting each other even if both their goals and their strategies are different. This is where intrinsic motivation — what I want to learn — meets empathy — what those around me need. And this requires a skill, the ability to anticipate the actions — strategies, needs, contributions — of those around us.

“This phenomena of individuals anticipating the possible actions of others matters a lot to economists who are concerned with describing individual economic behavior,” Jon Hartley wrote in Forbes Magazine— and I’ll add that we might simply substitute “learning behavior” for “economic behavior” to make this fully relevant. “Previously,” he continues, “the economic world did not necessarily assume that economic agents considered the incentives of other individuals, but rather only considered their own as rational agents acting as “price takers” in a perfectly competitive market.”

Nash Equilibrium explained
Simplified to the point of being somewhat inaccurate, but funnier (A Beautiful Mind, 2001)

Think about the statement, “the economic world did not necessarily assume that economic agents considered the incentives of other individuals.” That’s of course the first problem with an Adam Smith concept of the world of choices humans make. Since the beginning of time humans have considered the environments around them and the incentives of other individuals. Competition for mates, competition for food (v. other humans and obviously other species), competition for the safest places to sleep, competition for the highest survival rate of offspring, all these things have made humans very good at assessing the motivations and potential rewards of the other.

The same is true in school. The perceptions that school is both boring and unfair is supported by the essential understanding that school somehow works for others — the “brains,” the “jocks,” the “chess club nerds.” The perception that grading only rewards the “haves” is supported by every honor roll, every dean’s list, every awards ceremony.

The second obvious problem with Adam Smith’s theorems is that there are no “perfectly competitive markets,” and that there are no differing economic deals without differing ‘frictions.’ That job is too far away, it is too expensive to ship from there, my spouse doesn’t want to move, it is harder to park over there. That homework is only easy if your parents help, that class is only easy if you went to the right elementary school, that teacher only likes white kids/blondes/quiet kids/girls/smart kids — and in just about every school those frictions are obvious to students.

“This original line of economic reasoning, which began with Adam Smith’s concept of “the invisible hand”, was part of what’s known to economists as the First Welfare Theorem, that a free competitive market (referred to by economists as a competitive or Walrasian equilibrium) will always lead to an economically optimal outcome (assuming that markets are perfectly competitive, transaction costs are negligible, and that market participants have perfect information).” — Jon Hartley in Forbes Magazine.

Edward Said’s books are the primer for understanding colonialist practices

And finally, there is no “perfect information.” Schools, by their design, are built on white, middle class assumptions, so white middle class children are way ahead from day one. “ Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I’d be banished. If I tied the wrong kind of knot in a tie I was out,” Michael Ondaatje writes in The English Patient. Colonial Theories — post-colonialism — works to make those advantages apparent but in reality, progress on the fix is painfully slow. (I strongly recommend Edward Said on this topic.)

We subvert. There is a reason that I always tell new teachers to buy Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the brilliant guide to student-centered learning written by Neil Postman and Charley Weingartner in 1968. It’s essential because we cannot operate along the paths of our moral beliefs if we do not subvert the system we work in.

Philadelphia’s Parkway Program, New Rochelle (NY)’s Three I Program, White Plains (NY)’s Alpha Program and many others subverted the entire concept of school back in the 1970s.

As I subverted the Michigan State University grading system by starting with ‘As for All,’ as that seventh grade teacher subverted the Isaac E. Young Junior High School grading system by giving everyone a 94, as teachers across America subvert their school grading policies and expectations by ensuring that behavior and attendance and homework are not part of the grade, we must do what we can — even when we put ourselves “in peril.”

Start with eliminating zeroes — a negative 65 punishment grade in my understanding. Zeroes make a student’s grade unrecoverable, and thus destroy even the strongest extrinsic motivation. Use the collegiate 4 point scale if you must use a linear scale at all, at least in your own recordkeeping.

Next eliminate the things outside the student’s control. They cannot control their homelife, which is why homework will forever be cruel. They cannot control their disabilities, which is why not making alternate access — like audiobooks (and text-to-speech)and talking calculators and speech-to-text are essential before you can begin to measure. They cannot control other teachers, so make sure that your learning spaces are absolutely safe, and respectful of young lives.

Then, let the kids determine the goals. Work with each, talk to each individual. What do they need and want out of your time together? Their sense of their own progress can determine their grade — but make sure your choices are A (4.0) for “got there,” and B+ (3.5) for “tried.”

And finally, consider what really matters in kids’ lives when you grade. Empathy, cooperation, community-building, peer support, constant curiosity, creativity, and overcoming the issues that kids bring to school each day, that’s the portfolio of work that truly makes a difference — for each individual, for every community.

Then, always be kind. And always remember what your grade will do to that child. Because every grade will do something.

Cooperation, empathy, care…
  • Ira Socol

Ira David Socol

Written by

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning