10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 3: Grades

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

This is a big one. Grades are both so essential and problematic in this system that it’s hard to know where to start. Everything I wrote already is based on grades in one way or another and some of the other aspects are too. Would we rate anything we watch, read and play, if we weren’t used to grades through school? Aren’t grades systemic for this culture that always defines who is best, who is on top, who is in the upper class, who has the highest number of anything? What better way to instill this thinking in children than through school?

That’s not what they tell you in school, of course. They tell you that grades are necessary for comparability among students, for transparency of each student’s performance, that they are an objective measurement and ultimately to give employers a scale for deciding who to hire. The comparability factor is interesting by itself because it implies that it is necessary to compare students, that it is important to put them into a sort of hierarchy of good and bad students. Because this is what grades create, a hierarchical system where some are at the top and some at the bottom and many in-between. Sounds familiar?

The second argument is often used to explain that it is helpful for students and their parents to see how well each student is doing in that particular subject. It’s simple, if you have a good grade, you’re fine, if the grade is bad you have to work some more. But of course it is deceptively simple because since we are not computers, numbers never tell the whole story about anything we do. What if you were sick on a day where you got a grade? What if you had a bad week because of a break-up or a family conflict or someone you knew died? What if the teacher doesn’t like you? What if you don’t like the teacher? What if it was raining that day? There is an infinite amount of factors that influence your grade, but once a grade is set, none of this matters. Even if you have good reasons for not having a good grade in a subject (reasons that don’t mean you’re stupid), you become that grade if it goes on long enough.

I touched upon the teacher’s feeling towards the student above and that means of course that as clean and mathematical as these numbers look like, they are not objective, at least not in general. Sure, if a class test only counts wrong or right and the points add up to a certain grade, then even a robot could grade you. But what about other class tests where this is not so distinct? What about oral marks that only rely on the impression you make on the teacher? The teacher is the one who gives you the grade and as long as she is not the hypothetical robot, she will be influenced by a myriad of factors too. If you ask students you will get tons of stories of grades that make no sense to them, that are obviously wrong or unfair or subjective. But I’m getting sidetracked to the future topic of teachers themselves. The fact is, grades are not objective at all. Which is not a problem in itself, I think, but since all you get is a naked number, any subjectivity can only be figured out by speculation. Everyone know it’s there, but no one admits it, claiming that after an elaborate judging process this is the only possible grade you could get for this effort.

That teacher really didn't like me!

That teacher really didn't like me!

Now, finally, one of the main arguments always is the one about employers. Like, how else could they decide who to hire? Well, again, we basically know this is nonsense because even if most applications are probably filtered out just based on grades seen on the report cards, most employers will do much more than just look at the grades. And if you think about it for a second, this makes sense since the grades don’t really tell you the least bit if the applicant fits the requirements for the job. For one thing, they have forgotten most of what they have learned in school anyway and for another, most things you need for any job you would never learn in school anyway. There is a reason why your first day on a job will never be you knowing exactly what to do, but instead getting as much instruction and help by your co-worker or superiors as possible. “You’ll see how things work around here” is a more likely sentence than “You’re hired, there is your workplace, please start now.” Just to get this right, this of course also means that you can have terrible grades and can be perfectly suited for this job. But you will probably never get a chance to prove this, because if your grades suck, you’re out.

So, what’s the answer? In my position as a teacher at a “normal” school, there is not really a way out. I try to be as objective as I can or at least to be fair, but I’m very aware of my subjectivity. I try to simply accept it as part of this grading system. There are teachers that only give good marks all the time, but somehow students feel cheated then too, because they still have to work for it. As much as I hate grades, I try to give my students the feeling that they deserve the grade. If the grade is bad, I don’t want them to feel they don’t deserve it. Granted, really bad marks are rare because I believe that I don’t do anyone a favor by giving them bad marks. I try to balance it as much as possible and sometimes there is no argument for any acceptable mark, but I always feel bad about that. Because, no matter what you’re told, bad marks don’t really motivate many students. It happens at times, but I think only if they actually believe they can do better and they will only believe that if I give them a reason to. Does that make sense? If students realize that it’s not impossible to get better marks and if you are very transparent about how that can be achieved, then, in theory, any student will be motivated to get there. My main method probably is just to make my students aware of the fact that my grades don’t really say anything about what I think about them as people. There is nothing worse than a correlation between marks and the state of the relationship between a teacher and a student, meaning that it’s horrible that in many classes the students with the worst grades are the ones who get along the least with the teacher.

But that doesn’t mean in any way that I like grades. I hate how they make me judge young people, how students strive for getting better ones and how they kill any motivation for learning. That is the main problem for me, as mentioned in the exam post, that the moment you make students only focus on grades, they will automatically learn much less (even if they study more). An alternative would be simple reports with comments on a student’s capabilities and progress together with regular conversations. That is a lot of work, sure, but we waste so much time in school with teaching subjects no one needs and preparing them for exams that won’t help them in their future, that we could easily find time for this. This system is cold and detaches the whole learning process from the people who are involved in it, creating a rift between teachers and students that is essential if any learning process and progress is expected.

What do you think?