All children are natural learners. When they are young, they decide when and what they learn. Few restrictions are placed on them. The sole motivation for learning is experiencing what I like to call the "learning high" -- the euphoria that comes when you learn something breathtaking.
For children, there aren't any textbooks, lectures, worksheets. Just the world at their disposal.
Sooner or later Kindergarten rolls around. By now, they have been coached by their parents that their job is to bring home the A's, make Mama proud. No one warns them about the hell and misery they will experience for the next twelve years of their lives. Say goodbye to the days of frolicking in the sandbox, relaxing afternoon naps, and stress-free days and meet report cards, "forced" collaboration, and plenty of drilling.
Kids catch on to the game of school pretty quickly: Get good grades and get out as fast as you can. To motivate them to complete the work, schools dangle carrots and sticks -- grades -- in front of them, like a cart driver to a mule. My sole motivation to get good grades is reaping free Chuck E. Cheese tokens on my next visit. Just kidding.
An immeasurable sum of research illustrates that grading is responsible for reducing students' interest in learning itself.
Take a lesson from William Fariah who is widely known as the man who invented the grading system. Fariah was a tutor at Cambridge University in the late 18th century. Frustrated by the fact that he needed to engage with his students everyday to become familiar with them, he devised a method of teaching that allowed him to process more students in a shorter period of time. Grades were born!
Before this, grades were used to determine the salary of workers based on the quality of shoes produced in factories, according to the book “Thom Hartmann’s Complete Guide to ADHD.” In the classroom, grading failed to make students more intelligent or to give birth to contagious learning, but Fariah was given a raise and reduced hours anyways. I mean that's all that matters, right?
John Cage put it best: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ideas." Grading is more than two centuries old. And it’s not only old, but it's also unreliable. In high school, grade inflation is rampant. A 2009 study revealed that 45 percent of that year's college freshmen said they managed to graduate high school with an "A" average. In college, about 43 percent of all letter grades given were A's, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960, another study found.
Moreover, grading causes students to be risk-prone. Research finds that students of all ages who have been led to concentrate on getting a good grade are likely to pick the easiest possible assignment if given a choice. Folks, 'F' is really the new 'A.'
People often tell me, “Nikhil, that's cute and all, but if kids aren't graded, how are we supposed to tell if they are learning?”
I tell them that there is no shortcut to this answer. For instance, badges are an option to replace grades. In dictionary terms, a badge is a special or distinctive mark, token, or device worn as a sign of allegiance, membership, authority, or achievement. It is a way of giving credentials to the mastery of skill-set and knowledge in informal and peer-to-peer learning. Mozilla, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and others are working to develop such a system.
Portfolios, a breed of authentic assessment, are another option.
At the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, Deborah Meier experimented with judging low-income inner-city students on the basis of collections of their best work and oral examinations. Ultimately, the educators found that if students did well on these alternative assessments, they gained admission to college and tended to do well there. These portfolios may include writing and multimedia samples. Likewise, companies are becoming more inclined to hire designers and developers based on the work in their portfolios, rather than their grades in school.
Feedback is at the gist of a revolutionary assessment system. Notice the word "assessment." Assessment, unlike the current system, is an ongoing process directed at improving a student's learning. Iteration and failure are packed in. As anti-grading guru Joe Bower likes to say, "Assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it's a conversation." I propose that classrooms have daily crit sessions where fellow peers constructively criticize each other's work. This is a simple, yet very attainable solution.
"Attempting greatness without a genuine interest in the field is like running a marathon after fasting," Scott Belsky writes. “Remarkable achievements are fueled by genuine interest.”
Only when students have an interest does education happen.
Kids arrive at school with a fire in their belly to learn. The role of school is to prevent it from extinguishing. Abolishing the grading system and replacing it with badges and portfolios would allow true learning to flourish.
Nikhil Goyal is a student at Syosset High School in Syosset, N.Y. He is currently writing a book on education reform.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.