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It Doesn't Add Up: How Schools Teach Students to Focus on Grades and Not Learning


This is the fourth letter in my series on grades. In the first letter, “Food for Thought: The Lack of Validity and Reliability with Grades,” I shared how grades are not as valid and reliable as we want them to be. In my next letter, “One Small Step: The Power of Approximation on Learning,” I wrote about the importance of celebrating growth in learning. In my third letter, “Finding Your Happy Place: The Negative Impact of Grades on Learning,” I wrote about the harmful side effects of grades on risk-taking and motivation. This letter focuses on how schooling teaches students to focus on grades instead of learning.

If you are a parent of a child in elementary school or younger, my guess is your refrigerator is a makeshift trophy wall. Prominently displayed school work with stickers, stamps, and words of praise are honored with pride. While my days of elementary school-age children are behind me, I still have a framed spelling test from when my oldest son Nolan was in second grade. My reasoning for hanging up the test is really not about the grade he earned, but because it makes me laugh. In the bottom left corner, you will see there were ten spelling words and Nolan added an eleventh. The word he added was meant to be “poopy” but he misspelled it and wrote “pooppy.” Here’s the photo so you can laugh with us.

Now I want you to take another look at this photo. I want you to notice the grade at the top. Here you can see that the grade is represented in two ways. First, there is the fraction (14/15) and then there is the percentage (98%). This routine communication of grades is familiar to anyone who has been a student.

Here’s the issue. In most states in the US, children do not begin learning about fractions until third grade. Understanding that fractions are really division problems doesn’t happen until the fifth grade. It’s not until the sixth grade that students learn about percentages and averages. Nevertheless, before teaching students about this complex mathematical language, adults grade students with fractions, percentages, and averages. To be clear, even though the students may not understand the math behind their scores, they learn that a bigger number is better. So, students chase the bigger number for the sake of the number and not as a means of demonstrating growth in learning. The number, not the learning, is what counts. This is what eventually leads to behaviors like copying other students’ work, cheating, and disengagement with learning. After all, if all students need to do is get the highest number, they will find ways to do that. Adults put grades on the tops of kids’ papers starting in elementary school and then wonder why, by the time they finish elementary school they are already showing signs of being disengaged and demotivated, focusing on grades instead of learning.

I cannot emphasize enough how we literally teach students to care about grades in ways that are unhealthy and undermine our long-term intentions. These unintended outcomes start in the earliest days of children’s experiences in schools when teachers only put stickers on perfect papers. Teachers reinforce a focus on grades when they only put smiley face stamps and “Good Job” on student work only when it has earned the highest scores. I’m not advocating for the idea that “everyone gets a trophy.” I’m simply saying that if we want students to earn their trophies, we need to acknowledge what they can already do and focus on what they have learned (not just where they are in relation to the final outcome). 

In fact, our traditional approach to grading does not create a drive toward success, it creates a fear of failure. Failure, however, is a key step along the pathway to success. David Hillson writes about the relationship between failure and success in his article, “How to be a Successful Failure.” 

At first sight failure and success are simple opposites. To fail is not to succeed, and success is the absence of failure. But closer examination reveals a complex relationship between these two concepts and they are not mere antonyms. Understanding how they relate together offers important insights into the nature of failure and how it should be approached. There are two important relationships to consider between failure and success. Firstly, failure starts where success ends, and it defines the limits of success. But secondly, success often follows failure, since it frequently occurs after other options have been tried and failed.

This virtuous cycle of failure and success should be what we teach students. Failure should not be avoided, it should be coached, we should find what went well, and the failure should offer a healthy springboard into the next attempt. In her TED Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion,” Rita Pierson explains what it would look like for teachers to honor what students can do. 

I gave a quiz, 20 questions. A student missed 18. I put a "+2" on his paper and a big smiley face. 
He said, "Ms. Pierson, is this an F?" 
I said, "Yes." 
He said, "Then why'd you put a smiley face?" 
I said, "Because you're on a roll. You got two right. You didn't miss them all." I said, "And when we review this, won't you do better?" 
He said, "Yes, ma'am, I can do better." 
You see, "-18" sucks all the life out of you. "+2" said, "I ain't all bad."

If we want to be champions for students, then we have to approach their work with a desire to foster and fuel motivation, curiosity, and commitment to learning (for the sake of learning). Here are some suggestions on how to do just that.

  • Celebrate Approximation: Move away from a focus on perfection and celebrate the steps students take towards mastery. Try highlighting progress on assignments, offering specific praise for effort, and creating a safe space for students to share "mistakes" as learning opportunities.

  • Focus on Process over Product: Shift the emphasis from simply getting the "right" answer to valuing the journey of learning and exploration. Consider incorporating open-ended projects, encouraging inquiry-based learning, and providing opportunities for students to explain their thinking.

  • Choice and Ownership: Offer students some degree of choice in their learning. Allow them to select topics within a broader theme, providing different pathways to complete assignments, or giving them ownership over their learning goals.

  • Real-World Connections: Make learning relevant by connecting it to students' lives and interests. Examples include project-based learning that tackles real-world problems, bringing in guest speakers, or allowing students to explore personal connections to the curriculum.

  • Formative Assessment: Use assessment as a tool for growth, not just judgment. Consider opportunities for frequent check-ins, providing specific and actionable feedback, and allowing students to revise and improve their work based on feedback.

  • Collaboration and Community: Encourage students to learn from each other by fostering a collaborative environment. This could manifest with group projects, peer review activities, and class discussions that encourage diverse perspectives.

The current system of grading in elementary school prioritizes numbers over the joy of learning. This approach not only creates a culture of fear and disengagement but also undermines the very skills we aim to develop.  Instead, let's celebrate the journey of learning. We can achieve this by focusing on progress, valuing the "how" over just the "what," and empowering students to take ownership of their education. By fostering a love of learning that thrives on exploration and collaboration, we can equip students with the tools and confidence they need to succeed not just in school, but in life.


P.S. My Catch of the Week is this amazing video, "Curb Cut" by PBL Works. The video will make you re-see and rethink so many things we take for granted. Enjoy!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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