Why grades?

Why grades?

Why grades?

A little while ago I started thinking about the purpose of grades.

I’ve been against grades altogether for years, but I hadn’t reflected that deeply about why they were there in the first place. There has been an ongoing debate about starting to give out grades in 4th grade in Sweden, instead of 6th grade as it is now. Some of the arguments puzzle me. They talk about motivation and feedback…

You don’t have to have a lot of psychology knowledge to know that argument doesn’t hold. For children with high grades, grades can be extrinsically motivating – if you get a B+ you’re motivated to get an A. Are you motivated to really learn, though? Do you understand why you need to learn what you are being taught? Are you intrinsically motivated? – No, probably not.

And for children who get the lower grades? Are they really motivated to achieve more? – Not really. What usually happens is that they tell themselves they suck. They tell themselves stuff like “I’m stupid, I can’t make this, I’m a failure, I will never be able to..” Sure, if you are a teacher you can work with that grit and growth mindset for all you’re worth, and as a parent you can comfort and reassure, and you can manage to overcome some part of the demotivation that grades bestow upon the kids – but that is dealing with the symptoms of a broken system, not fixing it.

So, do you know why we have grades?

We’re sorting kids.

In the industrial paradigm (that we are still living in), a metaphor for the world is the machine, or a factory. Our systems are built upon this paradigm; we have input (resources, including Human resources) – through factory lines and functional divisions for effectiveness – to output, the product. It’s the same with schools, it’s a “factory” producing human resources.  

Can you see this before your inner eye – the process where kids will be refined from raw material to a well-behaved knowledgeable “yes boss”-type of product? I can. Even though I know a lot of schools and teachers wouldn’t immediately agree with that description of the process (since it is of course a simplification), the school system is indeed based on the industrial paradigm. Can you see it? I see division for effectiveness; age-divided groups, knowledge divided into subjects, I see requirements on the process (sit quiet, listen to the teacher, do what you’re told) and detailed requirements on the products, I see a hierarchical organisation and I see quality testing, grading and sorting…

So, grades have always been there for sorting. It’s not really a provocative thought, it’s just the common purpose of grading (whatever product it is you’re grading) and still not many people discuss this.

I googled the three words ‘grading sorting schools’ to see who is discussing this and what they are saying. I only got one result that actually had to do with schools – most results had to do with machines for grading and sorting products (ironically accurate). I found Joe Feldman, and this is one of the things he writes in his book Grading for Equity:

“It’s easy to see how these ideas – schools as sorting and acculturating mechanisms in service to efficient and appropriate preparation for workforce employment – remain pervasive 100 years later”.

But, he adds, what the schools actually deliver to the large employers is not what they are asking for. They don’t need yay-sayers with expert knowledge, they need people that are creative, innovative and emotionally intelligent.

Later I did find more on the subject, like a published review article called Categorical Inequality: Schools As Sorting Machines (Annu Rev Sociol. 2017 Jul; 43: 311–330.) with an abstract starting like this:

“Despite their egalitarian ethos, schools are social sorting machines, creating categories that serve as the foundation of later life inequalities.”

So yes, people are researching this and discussing this. Great. Now let’s do something to change it!

And I don’t mean changing the grading system. In Sweden for example we have a grading system that is not based on the bell curve, but on meeting specific knowledge requirements. It might be fairer and more leaned towards a growth mindset, but it doesn’t take away other negative effects.

How could we have a school without grades completely? Let’s discuss that!

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