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

Written by David Green.

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 
  • Play Practice
    DRAMA—Fayette schools, in conjunction with the Opera House Theater program, will present two plays Friday night at the Fayette Opera House. From the left is Autumn Black, Wyatt Mitchell, Elizabeth Myers, Jonah Perdue, Sam Myers (in the back) and Lauren Dale. Other cast members are Brynn Balmer, Mason Maginn, Ashtyn Dominique, Stephanie Munguia and Sierra Munguia. Jason Stuckey serves as the technician and Trinity Leady is the backstage manager. The plays will be performed during the day Friday for students and for the public at 7 p.m. Friday.
  • Front.F.school
    PROGRESS continues on the agriculture classroom addition at Fayette High School. The project will add 2,900 square feet of space and include an overhead door that would allow equipment to be driven inside. The building should be ready for the start of school in August. Work on ball fields and a running track is also underway.
  • Front.rover
    CLEARING THE WAY—Road crossings in the area on the construction route of the Rover natural gas pipeline are marked with poles and flags as preliminary work nears. Ditches and field entry points are covered with thick planks in many areas to support equipment for tree clearing operations. Actual pipeline construction is progressing across Ohio toward a collecting station near Defiance. That segment of the project is expected to wrap up in July. The 42-inch line through Michigan and into Ontario is scheduled for completion in November. The line is projected to transport 3.25 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.
  • Front.geese
    ON THE MOVE—Six goslings head out on manuevers with their parents in an area lake. Baby waterfowl are showing up in lakes and ponds throughout the area.
  • Accident
    FAYETTE resident Patricia Stambaugh, 64, was declared dead on the scene of a single-vehicle accident Friday morning south of Morenci. Rescue units were called around 9 a.m., but as of Tuesday, law enforcement officers had not yet determined the time of the accident. According to Ohio State Highway Patrol, Stambaugh was driving west on U.S. 20 when her Chevrolet Malibu traveled off the north side of the road and down a steep embankment, coming to rest in Bean Creek (Tiffin River).
  • Front.teacher Leading
    PRESCHOOL MUSIC—Fayette band director Jeffrey Dunford spends the last half hour of the day leading the full-day preschool class in musical activities. Additional photos are on page 7 of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Face Paint
    FUN NIGHT FUN—Savanna Miles sits patiently while Abbie White works on a face paint design Friday during the Morenci PTO Fun Night. Gracie Snead watches the progress after having spent time in the chair. Abbie was one of several volunteer painters, each creating their own unique look. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.

Weekly newspaper serving SE Michigan and NW Ohio - State Line Observer ©2006-2017