This week an article in The Atlantic entitled “Letter Grades Deserve an F” by Jessica Lahey struck a cord and has inspired this post. Ms. Lahey writes, “points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.” As I read the article I wished I could recapture the hours of anguish I suffered in school for all the “B”s I received. You see, I hated “B”s, more than “C”s or “D”s. Getting a “C” or “D” meant that I hadn’t understood the material, which was fair and acceptable, but a “B”? On an essay it meant the writing was good, but not really great, and on a test it was a reminder that I was okay but not perfect. A “B” was like a bullet fired at my self-esteem.
This problem persisted until the beginning of my junior year at UCLA when I realized that because I was striving for an “A”, maybe that’s why I wasn’t getting as many as I wanted. I tried something different. I told my instructors that they could write as many comments as they wanted on my papers, but not to put a letter grade on them. If they put one in their grade books, fine, but don’t tell me what it was.
Suddenly I felt free. I wrote what I wanted to write. If I was inspired to write a paper in the style of a church sermon, I did. If I had to compare two films (I was a motion picture major), I could pick two unlikely films I liked and not care if the essay turned out well or not.
But a curious thing happened. My instructors would hand back my papers, shake their heads, and say they didn’t understand why I didn’t want a grade. Then some would exclaim that I had written the best paper in the class!
Fast forward. I now teach a senior class at an art college called “Advanced Concept Development.” In design there is never a “right” answer, and I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time breaking my students’ habit – taught from years of schooling – of striving for that great idea or the right answer, or in my case the elusive “A”. I break them of this habit by making them generate a lot of ideas, not caring if they are good or bad, and do so in a very short period of time. I’ve found that if you strive to find one great idea, you never find it. You need to come up with a lot of ideas first.
Today, I’m on a school board and our innovative district staff has inserted a S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) class into the curriculum of our 6th grade classes. Brilliant. These S.T.E.M. classes teach that the “right answer” is not as important as the process – asking the right questions, experimenting, and being willing to try new ideas. This, I realize, is an answer to the letter grade dilemma. We will never get rid of the letter grades. They are engrained in our school system, and it’s what college admissions want to see. But we can teach our students that what’s important is to do their best, to experiment with ideas, and to work hard. Middle school is the best place to teach this. In middle school you can fail a student and teach them how to recover. The “F” will never show up on the transcripts sent to colleges.
We need to build students’ confidence. We need to teach them how to recover from failure, to focus on innovation and hard work, not the grade. Then students will gain a mastery of the grading system and not, as I did, feel subservient to it.