Are Grades Squelching Students' Love of Learning?
"But so besotted is our educational thought that we believe children regard knowledge rather as repulsive medicine than as inviting food. Hence our dependence on marks and prizes, athletics, alluring presentation, any jam we can devise to disguise the powder."
- Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, p. 89.
There's no doubt that today's educational system is heavily reliant on grades as a means to measure students' learning and achievement. But do grades really give an accurate representation of what students have learned? And more importantly, how does the emphasis on grades effect students' internal locus of control and motivation? And if grades aren't a reliable measurement and motivational tool, then what should we do instead? Charlotte Mason had some very compelling thoughts on the subject. Despite being born over one hundred years ago, her ideas are as timeless and still very much relevant today!
Charlotte Mason wrote, "It seems to me that education, which appeals to the desire for wealth (marks, prizes, scholarships, or the like), or to the desire of excelling (as in the taking of places, etc.), or to any other of the natural desires, except that for knowledge, destroys the balance of character; and, what is even more fatal, destroys by inanition that desire for and delight in knowledge which is meant for our joy and enrichment through the whole of life."¹ She's implying that children (and really all humans) have a natural desire for knowledge and that by using a grading system as the proverbial carrot to motivate students, we're inadvertently saying that the delight in knowledge is not sufficient motivation; or that the knowledge itself is not worth knowing for its own sake.
Charlotte Mason argues,
"both teachers and children find an immeasurable difference between the casual interest roused by marks, pleasing oral lessons and other school devices, and the sort of steady avidity for knowledge that comes with the awakened soul."² [emphasis mine]
There is a stark difference between a student who is motivated by achieving a good grade and a child who desires to learn because they have an awakened soul. When we choose to view the goal of education in this way, grades are no longer the focal point. We're reaching for something far more meaningful - in the form of an awakened soul.
Another belief we tend to buy into is that students are motivated by grades. What if the opposite is true? What if we're actually encouraging students to be dependent upon bribery in order to value learning? When we assign grades, we run the risk of undermining the natural desire and intrinsic motivation to learn something new. Miss Mason called this prodding. She states,
"What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort. Our whole system of school policy is largely a system of prods. Marks, prizes, exhibitions, are all prods; and a system of prodding is apt to obscure the meaning of must and ought for the boy or girl who gets into the habit of mental and moral lolling up against his prods."³
All of this ultimately begs the question: if not grades, then what? Charlotte Mason was not against exams or evaluating students. However, most modern exams are structured to find out what students don't know, or where the gaps in knowledge are. Charlotte Mason's exams aimed to find out what the student actually knows. Instead of multiple choice, students were asked more open ended questions such as: Write a short account of the period between the Old and New Testaments, or What do you know of the first battle of ______?, or even Describe in detail the lily family. Name some other monocotelydons. In this way, students are able to demonstrate everything they actually learned.
Charlotte Mason stated, "if a system of marks be used as a stimulus to attention and effort, the good marks should be given for conduct rather than for cleverness––that is, they should be within everybody's reach: every child may get his mark for punctuality, order, attention, diligence, obedience, gentleness; and therefore, marks of this kind may be given without danger of leaving a rankling sense of injustice in the breast of the child who fails. Emulation becomes suicidal when it is used as the incentive to intellectual effort, because the desire for knowledge subsides in proportion as the desire to excel becomes active. As a matter of fact, marks of any sort, even for conduct, distract the attention of children from their proper work, which is in itself interesting enough to secure good behaviour as well as attention."⁴ In this way, the emphasis is on students' character rather than whether or not they are able to recall some obscure fact or piece of information.
Questioning the validity and reliability of grades as a measuring tool forces us to go back to what we believe is the ultimate goal of education. Is the 4.0 GPA really the highest goal to aim for? Is graduating from a good college and landing a good job truly the marker of an educated person? Maybe. Maybe not. These aren't bad goals, but they shouldn't be elevated over things like integrity, generosity, prudence, honesty, etc. One of the implications of overemphasizing grades is that, "boys and girls may be so full of marks and places, prizes and scholarships, that they never see that their studies are meant to unlock the door for them into this or that region of intellectual joy and interest. School and college over, their books are shut for ever. When they become men and women, they still live among narrow interests, with hardly an outlook upon the wide world, past or present. This is to be the slaves of knowledge and not its joyful masters."⁵
Education is a life and that life doesn't stop once graduation day arrives. We can have a rich, beautiful schooling experience without the constant threat of grades looming over our students' heads. If we convince our students that the point of learning is to make the grade then we are doing them a disservice. Let's become joyful masters of knowledge and not distill education down to something as trivial as a subjective letter grade.
¹,³ Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 226, 39
² Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, preface.
⁴ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 144.
⁵ Charlotte Mason, Ourselves, p. 45.