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Grading and Teachers and Students, Oh My!

In my last post, I promised to go more into the societal implications and pressures we tend to put into marks. I’ve false-started this post a few times since then, because I want to say it right, without putting an extensive amount of unproductive blame out there.

I guess the simplest way is to just say what I believe and then try and lead you through my thought processes. And in simplest terms, what I believe is this: marks, at least as we usually think of them, are vastly overrated. They seem to me, at least in part, to be a relic of a system that we are continually finding doesn’t always work very well.

See, the idea of a mark used to grade someone is an outgrowth of the train of thought that started in the Enlightenment where humans thought that everything could be reduced to logical, intellectual concepts and components which are conveniently able to be represented by numbers. This sense of rationalism results in thought that says if you can just find a magic formula, then everything can be predicted and adjusted according to the will of the person with the formula.

Our current school system is still based on a model that aligns closely to that train of thought. During the Industrial Revolution, what would become our ‘modern’ system of education got its start. Much like the factories that sprang up worldwide, these institutions needed to produce factory lots of educated individuals in order to drive the economy and government of the world. However, you don’t want to hire the worst possible people for those positions, and so they needed a system to rank them in order to show who the strong achievers were. Thus, a system of assigning numbers to students to symbolize their attainment of knowledge.

Let me take a brief aside: I’m not against assigning marks period. The thought that you need to have a way to identify stronger achievers quickly and efficiently makes a certain amount of sense. Whatever else I say, don’t assume that I think we should do away with marks of all kinds.

Another thing that made number (or letter) grades/marks so attractive was that they’re comparatively easy to understand. You can very easily conceptualize 75% of something versus 100%. Once you understand that an A represents superlative achievement, then a rough mental gradient of where a C or a D- fits on that spectrum is easy to think of. This is great for students and parents alike who aren’t always able to see the full display of skill and requirements that teachers are privy to.

Of course this also inherently plays into our evolution-gifted compulsion to compete with others. It’s much easier to put yourself socially and mentally at a higher status than someone else if you know that you’re an ‘A’ student, and the other is a ‘C’ student. And of course we like this feeling, both when it is felt for our own selves, and for those we are close to.

To me, this is wrong.

At the time, the models that we were working under in the Industrial Revolution made sense. Cold, hard, accurate science was on the rise and we thought we needed a cold, practical, and predictable way of determining the quality of both a student’s education and their relative level of skill/intelligence/etc.

But in a modern world, we as a society cannot afford to keep looking at things this way. And if you try to tell me that we aren’t looking at it that way anymore, I won’t say you’re absolutely wrong (there has been some little progress), but I will ask you to inquire of your child’s or your own teacher just how many people come to parent/teacher interviews every year with one question: what is the reason my child is receiving ‘X’ (number/letter grade) and not ‘Y’ (higher number/letter they assume the child deserves)?

This happens all the time. And I think it’s wrong wrong wrong. Wrong of us as teachers to occasionally give in to the impulse to simply give a number, wrong of us as parents to refuse to see anything except the relative value of the number assigned to their child’s work, and wrong of us as students to simply be content with whatever variable number will satisfy the expectations of the parents.

I think the path is starting to shift, and I’m very glad that it is. As teachers, we know now that in fact, the moment you assign a number to a student’s work in a particular area, the tendency is for all learning in that area to stop instantly. There’s some socially or biologically motivated switch that says, ‘ah, a grade! No need to keep on with this stuff!’ and closes the mental book with a slam. Many teachers nowadays are talking about and stressing the need to not teach pure content as a pathway to an education. Content in an Internet age is largely secondary. What needs to be taught is learning. My job as a music teacher is not to teach students what a C major chord is, or who Beethoven was, but instead, to teach them how to practice their instrument/voice, and the basics of what a general chord or interval is, so that instead of relying on an easy, one-dimensional piece of information that can quite adequately be assessed by a letter or number, they are instead continually building their own meaning through a process that they have internalized, and can be applied to a multitude of challenges. And the only way you do that is by giving feedback not rooted in numbers and letters and arbitrary grades.

A final mental exercise for you to do in order to hopefully grasp what I mean:

You are my beginning band student, playing trumpet. You have no prior knowledge of the instrument, and we’ve been spending the first 8 weeks of the semester learning basic things like how to generate a consistent pitch, how to breathe, and what notes are. I give you a simple playing and writing test. Which of the following is more helpful for me to do in order to assess you and help you keep learning?

1. Give you a sheet of paper that has a number out of 10 on it for both your tone quality and your ability to write a few notes in a row.

2. Give you a sheet of paper that describes what I heard when you played for me, plus a list of corrections you should make to your note writing.

I know what I would pick.

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