For The Love of Learning: Don’t Mind the Grades

Part 2

You will find very few parents who won’t ask their children, “So how did you do on your exam?” Attaining good grades has become the main focus of parents and students, because it has become the means through which perceived good education is achieved. Before there were grades, student evaluation was more individualized and subjective. Student evaluation was a form of feedback on particular tasks assigned by the teacher to a student.  The purpose was to help both teacher and student pinpoint what needed to be worked on and what the student had grasped well. With the Industrial revolution, these subjective and individualized student evaluations have morphed into a standardized version of student evaluation which is represented by letter or numerical grades. A single letter now conveys how much a student has learned and retained.

However, do grades really do this? Grades are not that all encompassing. They don’t tell us the whole story. What they do tell for sure, is how well the student did in that particular test, not necessarily how much the student has learned, retained long term, or even understood. A student may have studied hard for the exam and aced it, but that doesn’t tell us if the student has even understood what she studied or retained it after the exam. In fact, in this race towards good grades, schools have been teaching students test-taking skills. So what do good grades really convey?

Just as grades are slapped onto meat packets on assembly lines in factories, grades are being slapped onto projects, tests, and exams, thereby rendering students as products to be labeled and sorted. Today, grades are thought to play a huge role in determining one’s future where academics are seen as being superior to non academic areas. However, as Sir Ken Robinson, a world renowned education and creativity expert, puts it, the human community thrives on the diversity of strengths and abilities. A fireman is no less valuable than a doctor, nor is a carpenter less valuable than a university professor.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, we are suffering from an academic inflation. Before universities mushroomed, only a select few would be privileged enough to pursue tertiary education. Today however, even if you hold a degree or degrees, it doesn’t guarantee you a job. Similarly, there are so many A plusses in university application piles, that universities are now looking beyond grades. As seemingly efficient as it is in terms of producing student evaluations, grades has become so commonplace, that in actuality, it doesn’t carry much real value in what really matters; the love of learning.

The first step to keeping the love of learning intact in your children is to adopt a paradigm shift with regards to how you view education. Amy Silver and Grace Llewellyn, authors of Guerrilla Learning How to Give Your Kids A Real Education With or Without School, advise parents to view school as only one of the resources of learning in a larger world of attaining education. Don’t think of school as being the only and final authority on education. The whole world is a classroom if we treat it as such. If parents are able to adopt this mindset, it would make it easier for them to not take grades too seriously.

Don’t allow grades to define your child’s sense of success and failure. Treat them not as a determinant of your child’s present and future success but simply as one of the requirements your child has to fulfill to get through the system, that is, if your child is in the system. Instead of asking your child, “So how did you do in your math test?” ask, “So what was the most interesting thing you did in math today?” Ask questions like, “What did you learn in history today?” and “What do you think about the English-French wars?” There’s no one right answer to questions like these.

The objective is to emphasize the thought process in the various stages of learning instead of on the results of a performance. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about how the child does in school (if this becomes a problems with the teachers), but it just shows that you care more about him engaging in learning. After all, learning is a life process. Any performance that is demanded of something that is still in progress will always be lacking. If it is not, then something has gone awry. This kind of thinking requires stepping out of the box, zooming out, and looking at the bigger picture.  It’s not going to be easy, because grades are such a dominant part of the school’s culture.

Thus it is even more important that the parents are truly able to change their mindsets about school and grades. Let’s say your child comes home with a C for his science project. On the forefront, you can muster up, “Well, we did have fun doing that project, didn’t we? Remember when your volcano spewed red bubbling lava? ” while your insides churn with pain. But this will manifest itself in your expression or body language. Your child will detect this, and he will continue with the belief that good grades are more important after all. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re content with letting your child have C’s and D’s in his report card. Because he still has to go through the system, you can make him understand that in the larger context of life, being engaged in what he’s learning is more important that being able to answer questions correctly all the time. Nevertheless, because grades do matter to a certain point, he still needs to get help and work on getting at least decent grades, at least for the sake of pursuing his area of academic interest. Since the disparate subjects in school do converge in real life, he will need fair knowledge of at least some of the subjects in order to master the dominant subjects of his area. My daughter loves psychology but she doesn’t really care for chemistry. I make her aware that at one point in time, chemistry and psychology will merge and so despite her indifference bordering on dislike of chemistry, she still needs to understand it well to truly master psychology. Learning becomes more meaningful with a purpose.

Along with taking grades less seriously, rewards and punishment for good and bad grades should disappear as well. Otherwise, we’re still sending the message that grades is the only key to success.  Taking it easy on grades is only one of the ways through which you can preserve the love of learning. If it’s the only thing you do in adopting this paradigm shift in viewing education, you won’t get very far. In fact, it can be a disaster. Since the whole world is a classroom, a lifestyle of learning has to take place for the whole family in order for the love of learning to thrive in everyone. How is this practically done? That is for part three to reveal.

Suggested reading:

Guerilla Learning How to Give Your Kids A Real Education With Or Without School by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver

Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out Materialistic, and Miseducated Students by Denise Clark Pope

 Published in SISTERS July 2011 issue. Also posted on Juli Herman’s personal blog.

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