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How giving grades to children inhibits learning



Calah Alexander - published on 02/22/18

Turns out, kids don't see grades as a judgment of their work ...

Yesterday my daughter Sienna came home, dropped her backpack on the kitchen floor, and threw a piece of paper down on the counter in disgust.

I stopped prepping dinner and reached for the paper, wondering what today’s catastrophe was, as Sienna threw her head down into her arms.

“I’m so stupid!” she wailed.

I picked up the paper and recognized it immediately as the homework she’d completed the night before. A 54 was written at the top and circled, in thick red ink. I hissed in frustration, knowing that Sienna took those arbitrary numbers as a personal judgement on her intellect, ability, and worth.

Of course, the teacher didn’t give the grade maliciously. The number itself wasn’t miscalculated or unjust. But as Arthur Chiaravalli neatly explained at Medium, grades in themselves are miscalculated and unjust — not to mention inherently counterproductive:

Not only do grades not encourage growth, they inhibit it. Grades take the focus off feedback … Coaches don’t put a score on the scoreboard during practices; that only happens during the game. Up until that “moment of truth,” coaches do everything they can to develop players in the skills and concepts they will need to succeed. To grade or rate them sends the subtle message that their current achievement is fixed. This is the exact opposite mentality needed to sustain growth and improvement. The goal is to “keep the conversation going” as long as possible.

What the grade on Sienna’s homework didn’t reflect is the fact that she started at this brand-new school little over a month ago. Everything was different and unfamiliar, and grammar was overwhelming. She had never seen diagramming, while her new class had been working on it for the better part of a year.

Her English teacher had her work through the lessons in her grammar textbook in abbreviated fashion in order to catch up. Every night she had 3-5 lessons to read, with 4 practice questions per lesson. But she worked hard, doing more than that most nights, and six weeks in she had caught up with her class.

The homework she brought home yesterday was the first homework assignment she’d done along with her classmates, lesson 69. She had worked her way through hundreds of pages of new material and unfamiliar concepts at  a pace quicker than that set by her teacher. She was enthusiastic about what she was learning.

But none of her practice lessons were graded. They were marked and corrected, but no numbers appeared. So this, her first “real” homework assignment, came like a crushing blow of failure after weeks of hard work.

I tried to change her perspective, showing her that she got half these questions right after only six weeks of studying this new material, but she didn’t believe me. I didn’t blame her, either. I would have been equally crushed by a 54, if not more so.

What I keep coming back to is how different her response to the practice homework was. Even when every single one was marked wrong, she didn’t despair. She asked me to help her figure out what she had done wrong, and laughed when I had to Google it (some English major here).

But a grade is different. It’s a label that kids internalize as a judgment not of the quality of their work, but of the quality of themselves.

We owe our kids better than this. If you’re a teacher, think twice before slapping a number or letter grade on every homework assignment. Just correct them. Save the grades for the big games — the tests, the finals. Let the kids keep learning because they want to, not because they’re trying to make a largely arbitrary number bigger.

If you’re a parent, remind your kids that grades mean nothing — and I mean nothing. They don’t always reflect work and effort, and they almost never reflect intelligence or ability. Furthermore, they don’t (and can’t) measure what we should really be trying to teach our kids: to fall in love with learning and pursue it for its own sake. If we can teach them that, they won’t need an extrinsic reward as a motivation. The opportunity to learn will be reward enough.

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