Ph conversation with Alfie Kohn (from Carol Jago’s With Rigor For All, pp. 60-62)
CJ: Alfie, you’ve written that teachers should stop fiddling with grading systems and get on with the business of helping kids. As a teacher who has spent a lot of time devising point systems, I’m intrigued.
AK: Research into grading over recent years yields three conclusions: 1. that it induces less creative thinking; 2. that it generates less interest in challenging tasks and texts, and 4 that it diminishes students’ interest in learning per se.
CJ: Pretty damning conclusions.
AK: Indeed. The only positive effect of grades tends to be a short-term recall of isolated facts and even that dos not hold true for everyone.
CJ: Yet there is the counter-argument that without high-stakes grades for a final exam, students tend not to do the reading.
AK: Possibly, but that is a powerful indictment of what the grading system has done to kids’ motivation until now, and possibly raises questions about curriculum.Research shows that when the curriculum is engaging and meaningful to students, there is no need to treat them as pets, to reward them with an A for doing what they are told with books they otherwise would not want to touch. Obviously it’s much easier to resort to grades, as I must confess I used to do. It’s more challenging, it takes more courage and skill, to take notice of students’ lack of interest and take up the challenge to rethink what we are asking them to do.
CJ: Rhetoric in the current political climate suggests that if we would just teach what used to be taught in school everything will be fine.
AK: Yes. The traditional approach that secondary teachers have absorbed is the transmission view of education = cram them full of facts and skills that they can spit up on demand. This is inconsistent with the theory and research about how people learn. Many teachers are familiar with the idea of constructivism that says people of all ages are active meaning-makers, creating theories about themselves, the world, and the books they read, and that it is the teacher’s job to facilitate that encounter. If you take that seriously, out go the multiple-choice tests along with the grades necessary to enforce them because they grow out of an antiquated set of assumptions about learning. There is a role for assessment: at some point we need to check in with students to get a sense of how well they’re doing, how we can help them to learn more effectively next week. But before we look at assessment, we need to ask the more important question = why we want to assess students’ work. If we’re doing it to “motivate” them, there is a huge collection of evidence showing this will be ineffective and counterproductive. When you rewaard people for doing something, as with an A, they tend to become less interested in what they were rewarded for doing. There is a huge amount of research that demonstrates the more you get students to focus on how they’re doing, the less they’re interested in what they’re doing.