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"Will This Be on the Test?" An Overemphasis on Grades Might Be Killing the Desire to Learn

Time and again, I've seen the fixation on grades get in the way just when my students are learning how to use their minds.

As a high school science teacher, I enjoy spending my time designing instruction. It’s professionally engaging to come up with something worthy of a bit of brow furrowing. Presenting my lesson to the class gives me butterflies daily. What will they ask? What will they want to do? What knowledge can be culled from their natural curiosity?

Days, sometimes weeks, can go by spent investigating one question or another. I recently had students arguing over whether a pendulum or a free-falling object will get to their lowest point the faster when released from the same height.

I had another class screaming at each other over identifying mysterious skeletal remains I had found on a hike. Horse or cow? Using torque, muscles, and tendons: horse. Using appearance, hips, and teeth: cow, a very fast cow. These questions are not trivial, and the inquiry into them pushed these students into the most critical avenues of the mind.

Sadly, no matter how hard I try, this natural curiosity ends up squandered. The specter of grading always creeps its way into my lessons.

"This is fun and all; I'm learning, and stuff," the students say, "but, will this be on the test?"

Or, worst of all, "how many points is this worth?" This may sound like the quibble of a teacher who doesn't want to grade his own exams, but I assure the problem runs a bit deeper than that.

Why isn't the learning good enough? Why are we so obsessed with ranking education? Does that even make sense? I would argue that it doesn't, and that our schools are the worse for it.

Think of one thing you're really into that has no connection to your professional life. For me, it's Tolkein. The Lord of the Rings has no bearing on my teaching, but I really enjoy it. There's a lot to learn about, and a lot that goes beyond simple fantasy escapism. However, if you tried to grade my understanding or enjoyment of Tolkien's work, I think you'd have a tough time.

Would you ask me arbitrary plot questions? Would you ask me to associate dialogue with the character that said it? Would you ask me to write an essay from the villain Sauron's point of view?

And then what? Do I get a "B?" What does that even mean? Sure, all of those things are great to know, but I have to believe that the important things will show themselves through my natural investigation of the Tolkien's work.

As a teacher, it is absolutely possible to identify the important points—often called standards—from a course. It is just as easy then to use these standards to judge a student's abilities. It just strikes me odd that this is what we've decided to use as our sole criterion for judging kids, especially at the secondary level.

I assert that my enjoyment of Tolkien is not gradable, and by corollary, my enjoyment of physics, math, cooking, and Shakespeare aren't either. I have learned enough to be self-serving. I have enjoyed enough to assess my own understanding and remediate when necessary. Telling me I have a B-level understanding and then closing up shop is not only offensive, it flies in the face of what we claim to be doing in education: creating life-long learners; people endeared to the idea of becoming better because it's worth doing, not because it's worth money.

Wouldn't it be great if our students investigated physics as freely, readily, and joyously as some do with The Lord of the Rings or perhaps cooking? What's the difference? No one is judging your cooking with points or letter grades; the feedback is a bit more visceral than that, thankfully.

Shawn Cornally teaches science in rural Iowa. He blogs about his experiences in education at Think Thank Thunk where he daily fears becoming a boring teacher.

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