Grades just don't make the grade: Educator Alfie Kohn critical of grades, rewards

Written by David Green.


What’s the point of going to school, asks Alfie Kohn, is it to get good grades or is it to learn?

Kohn, a nationally-recognized opponent of grading and standardized tests, such as Michigan’s MEAP test and Ohio’s proficiency tests, discussed his ideas last week at the Adrian College convocation series.alfie_kohn

Schools without grading end up with higher intellectual standards, Kohn said, because they’re filled with students who are interested in what they’re doing.

There are exceptions, he admits. Some kids are excited about learning and they like to get good grades, but most are just hooked on grades instead of real learning.

Kohn knows the response to his statement: But grades count in the real world.

“Actually, grades and test scores count very little as an indication of success,” he said.

He’s read the research and discovered only one correlation to later life: Those who obtain the highest grades tend to be less likely to do community service.

Kohn holds his highest contempt for what’s known as grading on the curve—the process that distributes grades from high to low, with the majority spread across the middle.

“It’s the worst abomination,” he said. “It says this class is not about learning, it’s about sorting you out. It says not everybody can earn A’s here. It makes everyone else in the class an obstacle to your success.”

Support from research

Kohn’s beliefs are backed up by research about human behavior and educational techniques. Study after study has produced the same findings, he says: The more you reward someone for doing something, the more they lose interest in what they’re doing.

“And the more they like the reward, the less interest they take in doing what’s needed to get the reward,” he said.

Even in the workplace, a multitude of studies shows that people who aren’t given rewards tend to do a better job. And in the classroom, stickers, stars, pizza parties—they make no sense as a means of motivation.

“Someone who does a really good job, generally really likes what he’s doing,” Kohn said.

Studies comparing graded classrooms with ungraded ones show that three things generally happen when grades are given.

1. Students become less interested in what they’re learning. Honor rolls and dean’s lists only emphasize grades.

2. Students are inclined to pick the easiest possible task—the route leading to the highest grade.

“Students aren’t lazy, they’re rational,” Kohn said. “The point isn’t to understand ideas. It’s to avoid taking risks.”

3. When graded, students tend to look at subject matter in a different way.

“Thinking tends to become more shallow and superficial,” he said. “They don’t ask ‘What does this mean?’ Rather, they ask, ‘Is this going to be on the test?’”

But if I didn’t give grades, a college professor would counter, the kids won’t even show up for class.

“What an indictment of your teaching process,” says Kohn. “Why not create an interesting class instead?”

Breaking away

To wean away from grades, Kohn said, start with a pass/fail system. Write comments on papers. Have a conference with each student.

If grades must be given, give a B+ or an A to everyone who shows up and does the work. Or meet with the student to determine a grade.

“Grades don’t predict much anyway,” he says again.

Schools are turning into test prep factories, Kohn charges, and a grassroots rebellion is needed to put an end to it.

“Teach skills in a context and for a purpose. It’s the exact opposite of the back-to-basics movement.”

If anyone wants to know how to make children more self-centered, Kohn has the answer: Put them in a lot of competitive situations. It makes them less aware of others’ needs and less likely to communicate their own needs. Study after study confirms it, and rewards only enhance it.

Younger students slog through multiple choice exams (designed to trick those who know the right answer), worksheets and mindless mimicry, then move on to college where they pay the money, take easy classes when available, receive a diploma and move on toward their desire to get rich, which only makes them more anxious and lowers the quality of their lives.

And then some day years from now, Kohn says, they wake up and ask, “What happened to my life?”

Kohn is the author of nine books, including Punished by Rewards, the case against gold stars; No Contest: the case against competition; and Education, Inc.: turning learning into a business.

    – Nov. 5, 2003 
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