Grades do not motivate kids!

We have an obsession in schools around competition, rank, sorting, and grades.  We focus so much energy in school around those issues that most students, parents and teachers do not even think about the consequences or the “why” they are doing what they are doing to kids.   We tend to reward grades not knowledge.  We make the assumption that good grades = knowledge when in fact grades may not be reflective of ones knowledge at all.

We see this played out every Spring as we have numerous celebrations of those students who managed to get high marks in school with scholarships, plaques, speeches and events held in their honor.   We never really talk about how they have grown as a person or intellectually.   In fact, all this sort of nonsense makes schools a very anti-intellectual place at times.

For me, the “light bulb” came on around this issue when I was asked to teach Advanced Placement (AP) Government.  In my third year of teaching, I had not done enough “tours of duty” to be trusted with the top level kids and all rookies normally get the worst classes so getting to teach AP for me was a coup in a department of seven veteran teachers.

I remember giving that first essay assignment in that AP Government Course.  I was anxious to see what the best had to offer.  I started grading those first batch of essays and came across one that was exceptional. Far exceeded all the other students.  I read it three, maybe five times and was convinced it was plagiarized.  I scoured the library (this was BG -Before Google) and determined that it was original work and far from plagiarized.   I even took it to an colleague in the English Department to find some flaws.  He gave it back to me “wowed” and said other than some commas or some verb tense mistakes it is pretty darn near perfect.


I really struggled with this essay and took 5 whole days to finally give it a grade. I wrote some constructive notes in the margin and gave it a “B.”  I returned all the essays to the students who all had lower grades than they expected — some shed some tears, some actually dropped my class, and others were concerned about how they would get an “A” since many of them were competing to be Valedictorian of the class.

Then something magical happened.  The very next assignment the whole group improved!  All the submissions were far better than the first one.  Even the one that was way out in front of the pack turned in another exceptional — but a much improved essay.

I was befuddled and wondered why this happened.  Could it be the best and brightest have not really ever been challenged?  Could it be that those best and brightest simply did what is “human nature” and do what is needed to get an “A” without much effort?  Are they that good at gaming the system? What about some of my other students in my other classes?  Are they playing the same game?  What do I do with the student that continues to outperform all others?

What I realized is our method of grading that typically compares students against their peers may be part of the issue.  Let’s face it, kids are not competing with just each other in school.  We live in a global economy they are competing with kids everywhere.  I could not really grade them compared to each other but needed to grade them as individuals pushing them to continue to improve and grow intellectually.

This is similar to what we do as coaches regardless if your coaching the choir, debate team, or any sport you always push all your players to do their best.  Even the most talented are never quite “good enough” because as a good coach you know that their is always someone out there in the world bigger, faster, stronger, better at whatever your coaching.  We also take into account differences among students who are just starting out playing the French Horn versus someone who has played the French Horn for three years.  We have different expectations around growth and they both might get an “A” in the music course even if they are not equal at the end of the course.

What gets in the way is the idea to evaluate each student individually, is that we are grading a student based on the ability to learn content knowledge.  How could we give two students an “A” if the level of content knowledge is different?  I struggled with this as I began to look at kids as individuals.  In particular, some of my students in my lowest track classes many of whom have been “socially promoted” since the 6th grade. That means they had not passed a course since the 6th grade — those students are looking at me as 9th graders and I am asking them to write a one-page summary.  To them a one page summary is next to impossible so why bother and face the rejection of the teacher and their peers.

I decided to speak individually with these students and told them to “trust me”  they would pass the course if they worked with me.  Some of them did others did not but the ones that did showed amazing the growth.  I asked them to start with one sentence, then two etc.   By the end of the course they could do that one-page summary no problem they just needed to work up to it…and those that worked with me passed my course many of them excelled.

I also stopped worrying about the minutia of the course and began to think in global terms about what they needed to know and do as an American Citizen.  I broke down my American Government course to this: all students when they leave my class should be able to pick up the newspaper understand the editorial, understand the political cartoon and be able to distinguish from fact or opinion.  I stopped worrying about whether or not they understood all the nuances to how a bill becomes law but focused on what they needed to know not what the textbook wanted them to regurgitate.  I focused on understanding concepts not definitions of terms.

By focusing on each student as an individual it allowed me as a teacher to push them intellectually and reward growth.  It gave them a passion for learning for learning’s sake.  The students often and without my prompting did way and above what was expected, not for a grade, but because it interested them and in some cases to challenge my thoughts or the thoughts of their peers.  It became a dynamic classroom and one that had passion around the concepts to such a degree that without anyone knowing all my government classes became indistinguishable from one another over time.  That is my AP students and my lowest track students did the same assignments, read the same material (all college textbooks), did the same level of work without obsessing about the grade.  Many of my most intellectual students were not in my AP class and were never in the race for valedictorian and those students often outperformed many of those AP students.   Many of those AP students are adept at understanding how to get a grade, but are not always willing to push themselves intellectually.

One last little example on how grades thwart growth is go into any — and — I mean any kindergarten or first grade classroom and watch the excitement and innate willingness to learn.  They love it.  They are motivated. They are excited.  Then go into a 5th or 6th grade classroom and look at the changes.  The main reason for the change is now we grade them, sort them, rank them and essentially make school about grades and not about personal growth and understanding.  We literally sap the “passion for learning” out of many of them by 6th grade.

Schools need to be a place that develops each child intellectually and gives them a passion for learning. That passion for learning is what will sustain them in their adult life and will allow them to continue to grow as a person.  It is that passion for learning that will equip them for life’s twist, turns and challenges.   Not the static and irrelevant grades in school.

Image result for kids and grades

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About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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