The philosophical foundation of our present approach to education is based on the assumption that students must be forced to learn and/or enticed into learning with a system of external rewards. This is a very damaging misconception. When we are learning something that we want to learn, or recognize a genuine need to learn, learning can be a joyous process. It can also be an arduous process, but when we have a true interest in learning, we put forth the effort necessary. The satisfaction that comes from a job well done is usually greatest when learning requires a substantial effort. A good education is a valuable asset in the pursuit of happiness. If we do a better job helping students develop or retain a genuine appreciation for the intrinsic value of education, we will not need to rely on grades to motivate them to learn.
We are all quite familiar with the system of external rewards that is in place within our schools. Teachers award points and/or grades for each assignment, test, paper, or project. These points and grades are then averaged or combined in some way to determine a student’s grade for each grading period. In the short term, good grades may earn recognition and praise from the school and from teachers, as well as money or other rewards from parents. In the long term, a high grade-point average, combined with high scores on college entrance exams, will help a student gain entry to a “good” college. Students whose grade point average ranks near the top of their graduating class may also be awarded scholarships to help pay for college. Good grades from a good college will be rewarded with a good job, in other words, a job that rewards marketable knowledge and skills with higher pay and with duties which may be more varied and interesting than those associated with other jobs.
This system of external rewards is most effective when parents reinforce the school’s actions with their own short-term rewards and punishments. Some students work harder to get good grades than they otherwise might because they receive money or other incentives from their parents. Positive reinforcement is more effective when the rewards are short-term and tangible. At the other end of the spectrum, the most immediate concern of many students who receive bad grades is the anticipated reaction of their parents and the negative consequences that are likely to follow at home.
In response to this system of external rewards based on points and grades, most students do a number of things they might not otherwise be motivated to do. They listen to lectures they don’t want to hear, read books they don’t want to read, and watch videos they don’t want to watch. They answer questions (generated by teachers, textbook authors, and test developers) that they have no real interest in answering.
This system is not without its merits. The long term pay-off of a more interesting career and a higher income is sufficient to get the majority of students to do what is expected of them. Despite occasional grumbling about the boring nature of the work assigned, the work gets done because the rewards offered at the end of this lengthy process are seen as tangible and worthwhile. In the process of doing what is required to earn diplomas and degrees, students are often surprised at some point to discover that the basic liberal arts education they have acquired is more valuable than they may have realized. While students are focused on earning points, grades, and the pieces of paper that certify them as being adequately prepared for entry into financially lucrative professions, they often become fairly well-educated.
This is a mutually beneficial arrangement for students, for teachers, and for our society. The students gain a greater understanding of themselves, other people, and the world we live in. Teachers benefit when students follow rules, participate in class and complete assignments no matter how irrelevant or uninteresting the material involved may seem to them. In most cases, society gets reasonably skilled and productive workers, moderately capable citizens, and individuals who are effectively socialized.
There are, however, a number of problems with this system. One fundamental flaw is that grades are notoriously subjective. Standards and expectations vary considerably from one teacher to the next. Each teacher has his or her own method of awarding points and calculating grades. Everyone who has attended school knows that some classes and teachers are harder than others where grades are concerned. A student who takes difficult classes with teachers who set high standards may actually learn more and have more highly developed skills than another student with a higher grade-point average who has taken less-demanding courses from less-demanding teachers. The ACT and SAT tests were developed in response to this very problem. Colleges and universities found that grades were not a reliable means of determining which students were best prepared for the academic rigors of a college education.
A second problem with the present grading system is the fact that the competitive aspects of the system are a primary factor in the diminution of the motivation to learn that is evident in the actions and attitudes of many students. In any competitive situation there are “winners” and “losers.” Not surprisingly, the individuals who win are more likely to enjoy competing, and to consider the rules of the game to be fair and reasonable. People who lose consistently are not likely to enjoy competing and eventually their interest in participating wanes. Academic competition is no exception.
The basic difference between the academic competition that takes place in our schools and many other forms of competition is that it is more difficult to avoid. Individuals who are not blessed with athletic ability tend to avoid participation in sports. People with little or no musical ability tend to avoid singing or playing an instrument. Compulsory attendance laws force students to attend school and non-participation within school is not an option in most cases. Furthermore, within our schools students are graded on nearly everything they do.
The academic playing field is not level. Just as some people are blessed with more athletic or musical ability than others, academic abilities vary significantly from one individual to the next. The abilities of a given individual can be improved with effort, but that does not alter the fact that success comes easier when you have a natural aptitude for a given activity. As much as some people might wish it were not so, the ability to learn is not equitably distributed.
There is a direct relationship between academic ability and the nature of the educational experience for students within the present evaluation system. Students with below-average academic ability often struggle to keep up and the fact that they are mastering the material at a slower rate than the rest of the class, if they are mastering it at all, is reflected in low, often failing, grades. For these students the classroom becomes a frustrating and demeaning place to be. The problems of slower learners are often compounded by policies of social promotion and an aversion to ability grouping. Many students are promoted from grade to grade despite the fact that they have not mastered the basic skills necessary to succeed at the higher grade level. With each promotion, they slip further and further below grade level and doing the work expected of them becomes more and more difficult. Within each grade level any grouping of students on the basis of ability is often avoided because of the perception that “ability grouping” will stigmatize slower students. The students who are the supposed beneficiaries of these well- intentioned policies frequently find themselves in classes where their previous failures come back to haunt them and they have less and less hope of succeeding.
As long as there is some hope of graduating, these students may remain motivated by grades. They continue their often futile attempts to earn passing grades and to meet the requirements for graduation because they believe that getting a high school diploma will make it easier for them to get a decent job. In many cases this is a false hope. The grim reality is that even with a diploma, unless they possess marketable skills, the only positions available to them are likely to be low- paying, dead-end jobs.
Doing away with grades would erase the stigma of failure that often makes the process of getting an education a negative experience for students who are below average in terms of academic ability. These students might have a more positive attitude toward school and learning if they were not forced to suffer the humiliation of constantly being reminded of their lack of ability. If we stop using grades to label students as failures, we might be in a better position to help them understand and appreciate the value of working throughout their lives to discover and develop their talents. When realizing our full potential is the purpose of education, the only failure is to stop trying.
Our system of external incentives based on grades is kinder and gentler in some ways for students with above-average academic ability, but the destructive effects of competition are also evident within this group of students. They compete with each other with regard to rank in class, for scholarships and for admission to the most prestigious universities. The competition among these students can be intense. They know that, ultimately, they will be competing for the best jobs based, at least in part, on their academic record. At every step of the way there will be winners and losers. Someone will rank first in their graduating class, the others will fall short. Some of these students will be accepted at the university of their choice, others will be forced to attend institutions that are less prestigious. Ultimately, when they compete for jobs, one person will be hired for each position. Some of our best and brightest students will be hired as the CEOs of major corporations, or be promoted to partner in prominent law firms, others will lose out. The consolation prizes may be more lucrative within the academic elite, but losing can be painful, nonetheless.
Competition may be unavoidable in a market economy, but education is not, by its nature, a zero-sum game. It is not necessary for some students to learn less in order for others to learn more. Our schools do not need to divide students into “winners” and “losers.” Although limitations of space at a particular school, or legitimate prerequisites, may make it unrealistic for some students to enroll in certain classes, we should do our best to offer alternative opportunities of some sort to any student who wants to pursue additional knowledge related to topics and courses of study in which they are interested.
The grades associated with schoolwork are a primary source of stress in the lives of students. To a large extent that is by design. While we offer the adult members of our society tips on how to avoid stress, there are times when we deliberately place students in stressful situations to see how they will respond. Particularly at the college level, many departments have “gateway courses” designed to weed out those with less aptitude in a given field. At the high school level, grades are no longer used quite as openly as they once were to “track” students into various courses of study—college prep for some, vocational classes for others—but they are still the primary means by which our schools provide a “sorting function” which is both insensitive and unnecessary. Life does a pretty good job of sorting us out, without any help from the grading system that is in place within our public schools.
Whatever sorting is necessary or unavoidable can be accomplished outside of a system of grades in school. As mentioned above, the SAT and ACT tests are more effective than grades as a means of determining which students are best prepared for higher education. In the competition for jobs, tests and other forms of evaluation can be utilized when necessary to determine whether or not an individual is qualified for a particular job. Certain vocations do require abilities that not all of us possess. If the Human Resources departments of various companies are operating efficiently, the most qualified person for each position will be hired.
In a market economy, the marketplace operates with the ruthless efficiency of the law of the jungle to determine who wins or loses in the competition for jobs and income. Some abilities have more economic value than others. In a society that is often guilty of judging people by their occupation and income level, we do not need to use grades to pour salt on the wounds our children suffer prior to their entry into the workforce. Students know when they are struggling. Issuing report cards regularly and relentlessly to notify them (and their parents) that they have failed is a cruel practice. While parents deserve to be informed of the educational progress of their children, there are more constructive means of providing that information. Our schools should be helping students fully develop their gifts and talents, not labeling them as “failures.”
A closely related problem with using grades as the primary means of motivating students is that some students are not motivated by grades. Some students are simply not interested in the subjects and topics being taught in school. Others are simply lazy. In many cases, however, non-motivated students are masking a history of failure by no longer attempting to succeed academically. They have become disheartened and discouraged by a history of academic failure. Although grades are supposed to motivate students, a steady stream of failing grades may actually become a disincentive for continued participation and effort. Rewards must be seen as attainable in order to effectively modify behavior. When good grades, or even passing grades, seem to be an impossible goal, many students see no reason to go on doing work that seems to be rewarded only by grades. At some point they stop trying. Once they abandon any realistic hope of graduating, the use of grades to motivate students to participate in academic activities is totally ineffective. For students who see no hope of earning passing grades, lack of effort is often a means of saving face. Some struggling students seem to feel that it is better to give the appearance of not caring, rather than make an effort to do the work only to receive a failing grade.
The most serious flaw with our system of using grades as the predominant means of motivating students to learn is that students get so caught up in earning points that they fail to appreciate the intrinsic value of what they are learning. When external rewards are the principal source of motivation, the primary interest of the learner is earning the reward. Since the main objective of most students is to earn points and grades, there is a tendency to work only as hard as necessary to get the grade or the number of points desired.
There is broad agreement among motivational theorists that intrinsic sources of motivation are more powerful and effective than extrinsic sources. External rewards are effective only to the extent that they are desired (typically because they are directly or indirectly related to intrinsic needs) and are seen as attainable. Furthermore, behavior that is conditioned upon extrinsic sources of motivation typically ends when the reward is no longer given. Our schools are a prime example of the relative ineffectiveness of external rewards as compared to intrinsic motivation. Consider the behavior and attitude displayed by creative individuals, and by teenagers with regard to getting a driver’s license, then compare their work habits with those of students in a typical classroom.
Obtaining a driver’s license has become an important rite of passage in our society. Having a driver’s license is necessary if teens are to drive legally. Most teenagers are highly motivated to study for both the written and the driving parts of the test that is required to get a license. Even students who are failing most of their classes in school usually manage to learn what they need to learn in order to pass the driving test, including the written portion.
We don’t have to require teenagers to learn how to drive. They are very eager to get behind the wheel of a car. They prepare for the test on their own initiative. Parents do not have to bribe them to get them to study for the test or threaten to ground them if they flunk the test. Those who do fail the test go right back to work, studying for the written test and/or practicing for the driving portion of the test. Eventually almost everybody gets a driver’s license. The drop-out rate for that particular course of study is nearly zero. Once they learn how to drive, they don’t forget. The knowledge acquired and the skills developed are utilized immediately and continuously.
Creative individuals are motivated by an intrinsic need to give expression to their ideas and feelings, and to experience the joy they derive from utilizing their abilities. They are driven to create and/or perform. Although external rewards (money, praise, recognition) often accrue to talented individuals, they are incidental, or at least secondary, to true artists, who paint, compose, take photographs, sing, dance, or write, in order to express themselves. They do not have to be forced to practice or study. They want to develop their creative abilities because they love what they are doing. They work hard to develop their talents to the fullest, with little regard to external rewards. They strive for perfection and are never content with less than their best effort.
The level of involvement and effort typical of students within our present educational system pales in comparison to the type of dedication and effort exhibited by intrinsically motivated learners in these examples. The common denominator among top students competing for class rank and scholarships, students struggling to pass enough classes to graduate, and the full range of students in between, is that the vast majority of students work only as hard as they believe they need to work in order to attain their own limited objectives within our educational system. Since few students are motivated to consistently put forth their best effort, most students do not learn nearly as much as they are capable of learning.
Most students are willing to play the game pretty much by the rules. They do the work that is assigned and do it as well as they can without straining. They enjoy getting good grades but will settle for average or passing grades if that is as much as a modicum of effort will get them. There are also significant numbers of students who are quite willing to bend or break the rules. They take any short-cuts available to them, copying the work of other students, attempting to answer review questions without actually bothering to read the material the questions cover, cheating on tests, plagiarizing liberally when writing papers, or passing off papers written by others as their own. Many students see nothing wrong with these practices.
While it may be true that cheaters never win, in our schools cheaters quite frequently pass classes and ultimately are awarded diplomas with the help of the methods listed above. For students with limited academic abilities these tactics may be the only way to earn a diploma. While students may not value education, most of them want a high school diploma, and they are willing to use any means necessary to get one. Donning a cap and gown and walking across the stage to the cheers of friends and family is the ultimate external reward for high school students. Babies learning to walk would never be satisfied with being awarded certificates stating that they were able to walk even if they were not actually able to do so, yet many students in our schools are only too happy to be given a diploma, even if they have not acquired the knowledge or developed the skills a diploma is supposed to represent. Clearly, they do not appreciate the intrinsic value of being well-educated.
As with many of the reforms proposed herein, doing away with grades will work best if students are given more freedom to choose what to learn. When students are learning something they want to learn, or recognize a need to learn, mastery is its own reward and students learn for the sake of learning. Instead of attempting to force students to learn, or to entice them into learning, with a system of external rewards, our schools should be organized in a manner that works in harmony with our natural love of learning. We need to develop an educational system founded on principles and practices that harness the intensity of the motivation demonstrated by babies learning to walk, toddlers asking endless questions, teenagers learning to drive, and artists striving to express themselves.
Grades and other external incentives are poor substitutes for an intrinsic desire to learn. When we have a genuine appreciation for the value of education, we are more committed to learning and are more likely to cultivate the habits and attitudes that make the learning process more effective and efficient. Self-motivated learners take responsibility for their own learning. They retain more of the curiosity typical of early childhood, which makes it more likely that they will have a broader range of interests and be more open to learning in general. Self-motivated learners recognize that school is only part of the overall process of becoming an educated person. Although they typically derive some benefit from any reasonably competent classroom instruction, much of what they learn is learned outside of the classroom. Life-long learning is a pleasant habit and not an empty phrase for those of us who have a genuine appreciation for the value of education.
Some parents, and some students, prefer a competitive environment. The option of being graded on a regular basis should continue to be available within our educational system. On the other hand, those students who would prefer not to be graded should (with the consent of their parents) be allowed to attend school without being graded. There are also improvements that could be made in this area short of doing away with grades completely. We could develop standardized tests for subjects that are required for graduation. Some part of a student’s grade in these courses could be computed based on a student’s score on such a test. This would alleviate, to some degree, the problem of grades being subjective. Parents or schools could also decide to continue grading students in required classes but do away with grades for elective classes. Students should be allowed to play sports, learn to play a musical instrument, or paint without being graded on their efforts.
It may well be that very few parents would elect to dive into the deep end by doing away completely with the practice of having their children graded on the work they do in school. Those few brave souls who do have faith in their children’s ability to appreciate the intrinsic value of learning should be able to act upon that faith. They should be given the option of sparing their children the stress and, in some cases, the humiliation of being evaluated relentlessly as they attend school.