The Toxic Fallout of Grading
the day I climbed out of the rabbit hole.
I am a study abroad student at the National Institute of Design in India. I am 22. The students are diligent, curious, informed, excellent critics and great collaborators. But still. Even though I’ve been in the program for months now there is one thing I can’t get my head around. I am bothered by the fact that the students are never graded for their work. Sure they get feedback all the time — but it’s a 5 year program and not once do they get a grade.
I could see I was lucky to be studying in this thriving, positive learning culture. Yet I found myself always wanting to understand the hierarchy in the class. I even went so far as to challenge the students saying “But how do they know who is the best?” Without grades as signposts of who the strong students were I couldn’t locate myself in the program and for the life of me I couldn’t make sense of what motivated the students to work so hard.
I am blushing as I write these last sentences.
I am pretty sure Brené Brown would call this a shame storm.
But Brené would also say I should listen to that shame. Of course it is uncomfortable to be curious as to why this rankled me. To acknowledge out loud that I once thought grades were synonymous with learning is kind of humiliating given the work I do now. It is heartening that twenty-five years later I hardly recognize my old self. But I tell this story because it is not as if the world has changed so much in that quarter century. We debate a lot the toxic stress of high stakes testing and the inauthentic learning that is being measured. It seems important to also underscore the fallout that comes with summative assessment shaping a student’s learning mindset.
Luckily for me my mindset was turned upside down by my experience. I am forever grateful for the epiphany that came from the students’ response to my inane question. They looked at me as incredulously as I did them and simply replied “We are all the best because we have different strengths. We don’t need a professor ranking us to know that.”
Somehow the integrity of the statement rang true and cut through 16 years of institutionalized education that had told me otherwise. I immediately saw just how wrong it had all been. I understood how generous collaboration cannot be fostered in a culture of competition. I saw how you could only learn to be a mindful critic if you weren’t trying to second guess your professor. I was just an undergrad student at the time and yet this is the founding story of the teacher I became.