A, B, C, D, F.
These five letters have ruined education for millions of students.
“The function of high school, then, is not so much to communicate knowledge as to oblige children finally to accept the grading system as a measure of their inner excellence.” — Jules Henry
Over 12 years of public schooling, we’re meant to find out what we’re truly passionate about.
Instead, those 12 years are spent developing an obsession with grades, the ability to regurgitate information, and the realization that achievement is more important than understanding.
Starting in elementary school, students follow the same general schedule:
- Learn information in a class
- Go home and do problems on the concepts learned
- Take a test on the concept with a grade from 0–100%
Theoretically this makes sense.
But while tests are a great measure of testing understanding, they only aid learning if we actually go back and fix the mistakes made on them.
Some teachers ask you to correct tests, and others even give extra credit for doing so, but the vast majority of completed tests find their way into a recycling bin.
If we’re not correcting the mistakes made in a test… then what’s the point of taking it in the first place? Is it really enough to point out where gaps in learning are, if there’s never an effort to fill those gaps after the fact?
Even more shocking is that after a test, teacher then moves on to the next concept, building on the material just tested.
Somehow, the student who finished with an 80% on an exam is expected to understand new material based on concepts that he or she doesn’t have full understanding of.
I’ll illustrate this with an example from Salman Khan’s Ted Talk.
Imagine you were building a house.
After buying the land, you hired a contractor to come in to make the foundation for the next 3 weeks.
3 weeks later, an inspector comes in and says that the work is 80% complete.
80% is a B, not bad, let’s go ahead and build the rest of the house on top of the foundation.
A year later, after trying to build the second floor of the house, the floor splinters and the house collapses.
This might seem like a ridiculous example, because who would build a house on a foundation that’s only 80% complete? Nearly every teacher in America.
We somehow pass students to the next subject/grade with anything over 65%. That means you can not understand over A THIRD of the material, but find yourself on the same track as someone who understood 99% of it.
How can we be surprised when a student who gets a 65% in Algebra finds Advanced Algebra impossible- and gives up on math the second it isn’t required?
Is this really helping the student? Or is this stifling any love that they would ever have for learning math?
Test -> Grade -> Next Concept -> Test -> Grade -> Next Concept -> etc.
This chain of events is what’s created by achievement based learning.
Students become grade obsessed, studying to pass a test rather than studying to learn. They transition to memorizing and “brain dumping” information instead of learning it, because that is what fits the system best.
And then, based on mastery of this achievement chain, we hand out grades.
This is all to say that while testing and grades are a serviceable tool to measure understanding, they are a detriment to learning if they aren’t used in the right way.
And right now they aren’t.
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(This article was repurposed from LinkedIn! I published it in both places so I could reach the people that knew me here as well as business contacts, etc. You can check out my LinkedIn if that’s a better place to see these- and feel free to add me there as well.)