Grades stopped working

When a ‘straight A’ student gets another ‘A,’ they often sit back and assume that they know more than enough already. It’s true – someone close to me was valedictorian in high school and nearly flunked out of his first year of college. He never developed any study habits, since he didn’t need them in high school.

This has happened in my own science class. A very capable student was once completing the easiest possible assignment. He had a choice of several projects. When I asked him why he was doing so little, it was because he ‘already knows everything’.

Grades do not motivate the students who are the most capable. They’ll work far under their potential because an “A” isn’t a challenge.

Students who are struggling with their classes aren’t helped by grades either. They do not need yet another teacher telling them they are failing. They need a place they can show what they do know and work into their strengths. They need a break from constant missing work reminders or punishments. Creating is their best opportunity to enjoy school and build confidence.

Students who struggle need a teacher that gets excited with them. They need a class to talk about at home and to proudly bring home projects. Grades can turn a maker class into just another class where they struggle.

Innovative Arts class is about helping each kid become a creator of their own type. Kids dive into their creator type in 5th and 6th grade. As they get more experienced, they can start combining them.

I mention grades as briefly as possible to them. Instead of a detailed points system, we spend time imagining how cool it would be to be a unique creator. What follows is an elusive thing in education – intrinsic motivation. Kids know they can invest as much time as they want in themselves. So what should I call an “A” in that case? The moment I define what an “A” looks like in Innovative Arts, many of the kids know exactly when to stop. What is worse, most of the kids will then infer what earns a ”B” “C” or “D.”

I have seen it first-hand, about a decade ago. A student asked “how many sentences do we need?” during an paragraph assignment. “Seven” was the reply from a different student. The first student stopped typing, mid-sentence, and turned in the document incomplete. I asked them why they stopped mid sentence when they clearly did not have it finished. They replied “Well, I already had like five”. This student didn’t want an “A”, they wanted to be done. Grades are a game and educators only lose by playing.

Grades have become like the tail wagging the dog. They loom large in the minds of our students. Larger than the progress they are making as learners. Much larger than their curiosity for learning.

A new vision for education

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