Grading is so ingrained into our academic experiences and systems of education, that is difficult to conceive of alternative cultures of grading. The traditional ranking system of A,B,C,D has served us well for a couple hundred years now in this country. The short-hand nature of the grade appears to communicate all we might need to know about a learner. And it seems the learner too would naturally aspire to the higher marks – an extrinsic motivator, but one that is assumed perhaps to reflect the inner passions and abilities of the learner.
This point accumulation focus is diverting our (my) attention to the actual abilities and interests of students. Most students seem more worried about the number of points acquired than the skills and thoughts they are exploring.
So it was refreshing to talk with Michal Eynon-Lynch, ActiveGrade’s Co-Founder and Director of Meaningful Connections, about their product and goal-based grading (aka standards-based grading, mastery, proficiency, competency…). These ideas push and pull educators (myself included) toward open conversations with students about their learning experiences and skill mastery. And it encourages students to care less about the scores on individual assignments and assessments, and contemplate the nature of their learning and demonstrations of mastery.
I once received a 2-page course evaluation comment from a student (she was a teacher taking my Chinese class). In the treatise, she highlighted several elements she found good, but mostly what I remember is her opposition to the several competition-like activities I included. I would ask students to perform Chinese character writing on the board in front of their peers as a kind of race. I felt I was encouraging students to produce their characters fast and accurate. Most students, it seemed to me, enjoyed it. Or at least they were into it, excited about writing, and enjoying the moment. They would share ideas for how they remembered the characters. Seemed like sound pedagogy.
This student didn’t see these competitions in the same light. She saw only embarrassment – a form of public shaming in the guise of motivation. It’s a perspective that has stuck with me.
When I look for it, competition appears to be a pervasive element of the educational experience. We have formal sports competitions, and academic competitions, award lists, and a ranking grade system that seems to communication who won and who lost. We compete for scholarships and even for seats in a classroom.
Yet, there is a wholesome side to our competitive spirit. The coach who inspires the best in us, the teammates who share pride in our accomplishments and support in our disappointment, and the drive in ourselves to improve. This is the side we talk about with Sue Gilbert, a Kirkwood student in the Graphics Communication program. She shares her story and journey through an honors project on the Brotherhood of Competition.