What is a grade?
What do you think your educational experience would have been like if it didn’t include being graded on everything? Do you think grading helps a student learn better? Do you think all learning can be graded? Do you think it is possible to objectively grade a student’s work?
The word grade is used to refer to the rank, quality, or proficiency of something or someone. We buy a certain grade of beef or we call something a “B movie.” The concept of grades is used in institutional schools in two related ways. First, it is used to rank students according to level of current study, which we commonly associate with age, but grade level is also considered a measure of intelligence by most people. Consider the stigma for being “held back” a grade.
The second use of grades is for scoring the assignments a student is supposed to complete. I say “supposed to” because if they don’t complete the assignment they still get graded with a score of zero. Too many people assume too much about grades. It is very helpful to ask what giving grades is supposed to accomplish and if giving grades does what people think it does.
How are grades used?
Grades are a symptom of the impersonal nature of institutional schools. They are an to attempt to evaluate how much students are learning and to pass that evaluation on to others in the system. Grades are also used to try to motivate students to learn by rewarding them with scores and rankings that may result in social standing or preference in college application.
Does a tutor need to use grades?
Consider if you knew a young person who had somehow studied under an engineer that was known and respected in the community. It doesn’t really matter what the form of this studying was. It may have been some on-the-job experience, it may have included some assigned readings, and it may have included various experimental projects. Whatever it was, if that engineer at some point recommended that young person for a job, it wouldn’t matter if they had a record of grades for all of that.
What would matter is if the engineer was willing to stake his reputation on the recommendation. Maybe he could talk to the prospective new employer or write up a summary of what was experienced and built, but the relationship would imply a level of mastery over the subject necessary for a new employee entering the field. He might as well give the student all “A’s” for that is what his recommendation is implying unless he specifically indicates otherwise.
This is a description of tutoring. With tutoring, the student is taught what they need to know until they know it. Then they can move on to the next level of learning associated with the subject. If they haven’t learned what they need to well enough, then moving on to the next level is going to lead to frustration at every level thereafter. The goal is retention and application of the knowledge or skill. Grades are basically irrelevant.
How tutoring is done
Tutoring can only be done when a teacher spends enough time with a student to understand what he is having trouble with and then individually problem solve how to teach it to him. This may sound like a lot of work to those who are used to just moving students along in a system, but in practice it is a much more efficient use of everyone’s time.
Tutoring is efficient for the student because he is allowed to learn according to his own strengths and weaknesses; and efficient for the teacher because each student reaches his full potential according to his abilities and desires. If all the money that is wasted on buildings and educational bureaucracy were just spent on tutoring, many problems would be solved. And children would have more time to play.
Tutoring is also efficient because students learn to teach themselves. They get such a solid foundation of a given subject that once they reach a certain age (different ages for different subjects and different children) they can teach themselves a lot of things. They will certainly come around for help, but almost anything is more fun when you really understand it.
It is worth noting that adding tutoring onto an institutional school system is not going to give the same results as outright tutoring in the subject. For one thing, both the tutor and the student are still slaves to the institutional system. For another, the student is probably already burned out from spending so much time doing bookwork all day.
Parents make very good tutors!
As you may guess by the title of this article, I think parents can be the main teachers in their children’s lives, but if you are interested in a discussion of evaluating how and when to use experts in your child’s education, I suggest this article that I wrote: Do You Need Experts to Teach Your Children?
Grades are always subjective
A grading system revolves around testing and scoring. The institutional system prefers tests of the most sterilized kind because such tests seem the most objective. But are they? There are many subjects and skills that are difficult to test in a written and timed sort of way. Who gets to decide what is a passing score?
I was discussing this all with one of my college-age daughters, who is entering her senior year of marketing studies with an emphasis in economics. She (as well as the rest of her 6 siblings) were taught at home through what is referred to as the high school level. I rarely graded them on anything. I taught them to learn. She had some interesting things to say about grades in college.
- Teachers must always decide how to assign points. It is never objective. Example: How much weight should be given to individual assignments throughout the course? Also, it is not uncommon for teachers to make ways for students to make extra points, which often results in some students getting scores that are over 100%.
- There are frequently unclear guidelines for what is required. Example: Teachers who don’t think anyone should ever get a full score, but won’t explain how a full score can be obtained. Information in the class syllabus is often contradictory or vague.
- When teacher’s assistants help with scoring, it is even worse. Example: A teacher’s assistant has not read the class syllabus or specific requirements for the assignment. Or the teacher changes the requirements in class that the assistant does not know.
- The difficulty of scoring is made worse by the complexity of the assignment. Example: How should a research paper or complex mathematical equation with partial credit options be scored?
- Teachers often have biases that are unrelated to the criteria for the class. Example: one daughter had a Spanish writing assignment graded very poorly because it did not suit the teacher’s political views.
- Teachers do not relate to all students equally. Example: A student who is willing to question their grades will often end up with a better grade. Also, perceptions of each student are known to affect how a teacher scores more complex assignments.
- Learning for the tests frequently does not result in long term retention. Example: Principles of financial analysis taught for a semester as a sophomore are forgotten before graduation. They could be more efficiently learned on the job and remembered as used.
What does it cost to grade students?
I hear some people say that children need to try to achieve grades, that it is an important life lesson to be able to take such tests. I have to ask at what cost? What if approaching education from a test and grade model demotivates and inhibits learning? What if it is a waste of time because it doesn’t really teach a person to think and express? What if giving the “right” answers is a shallow method that rewards conformity and scoffs at creativity? What if always requiring children to be tested about what they are learning takes time away from learning? What if constantly scoring what a child produces distorts a child’s sense of who he is and blinds everyone to what he is capable of? What if everything can’t be tested, so those things that can’t are neglected?
Feedback versus grades
A tutored or homeschooled child needs feedback, certainly, but that needs to be in the form of how to learn. From the tutoring perspective it makes little sense to give a child a low score then move on to the next section. By the time a tutored student is ready to move on, he has earned a good grade. He is proficient. He has shown a high level of comprehension and ability to apply the material. He will most likely get an “A” written down on any necessary records.
There is no reason for a homeschool parent to feel guilty about this. If the parents of children in institutional schools think this is unfair, perhaps they should look into tutoring their own children. Unfortunately, they will likely come up with excuses for why they “can’t” do it, and in order to feel good about that, they have to be defensive and interfering with parents who do choose to teach their own children.
Occasionally I handed out a B+ for a subject that I felt one of my children did not have a high enough level of interest in. This usually was for a subject that wasn’t something they were going to continue to study. For one child it was music, for another it was chemistry. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with a tutoring model of education that level of interest is a reasonable indicator of progress.
However, I did not give any of my children grades on their assignments or subjects before early high school level. During the high school years, we still pursued mastery, but I sometimes showed them what grade they might receive on a particular assignment in an institutional setting. It was a way to prepare them for potential college classes.
Life flourishes without grades
Out of our 7 children, 5 went to college (for challenging degrees). Three have graduated with honors, two are in their senior year with very high grades and extremely good reputations among their professors. One of them has pursued computer centered work without a degree. (In case you are counting, one daughter died of leukemia just shy of the age of 14). All of them are employed and get glowing references from their employers. One is additionally self-employed on the side.
But do you know what one of the best parts is? We as parents have the type of relationship with our children that can only come from 1) spending hours everyday exploring the world around us together, 2) having in-depth discussions about what is important and how to problem solve, and 3) them seeing that we thought spending time with them as children was a priority. There is no way to put a grade on that.