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Grades can motivate achievement and learning

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I’ve learned that some teachers and schools are experimenting with “going gradeless,” eliminating grades from classrooms and concentrating on learning. It could help with students experiencing failure and anxiety as a result of grades. But there could be drawbacks as well. Could it work?

There’s not much need to “experiment” with eliminating grades from the classroom because we already have a group of students for whom, essentially, grades don’t exist. These are children who are completely indifferent to grades and whose parents respond no differently to failing grades than passing ones. Meanwhile the system never holds them accountable for low grades by making them repeat or go to summer school.

What does “going gradeless” look like for these children? They are hard to engage, difficult to educate, and often become behavior problems.

I know all students wouldn’t fall under this description if we waved a wand and eliminated grades, but it would soon begin to apply to a whole lot more students than it does now. Peer pressure would ensure the number would only grow.

Why? In a word, motivation. Motivation isn’t the reason we have grades, but it’s an important effect. Educational romantics say learning should inspire a child’s effort, not grades. We agree, but now let me introduce you to children.

A lot of kids – probably most – don’t hear the song of the learning siren. They’d rather watch TV, have fun with their friends, do sports, or play video games. Grades motivate them to pay attention and do their work in two ways. The first is by stimulating the intrinsic desire to achieve, or, conversely, the desire not to fail. When we play a game most of us try to win. It’s natural.

The second motivation comes indirectly from parents. Even kids who couldn’t care less about winning or failure can be induced to pay attention to grades by parents who hold them accountable.

Think back to your school days. Can you honestly say you would have finished that science project, essay, or math test if no grade had been associated with it? In fact, think of your job. It would be lovely if we just cleaned the floors or sold insurance because of an inner desire to serve, but the reality is that it’s our paychecks that motivate many of us to do our jobs well. It’s human nature. Sometimes we have to rely on less altruistic reasons to do things we’re not enthusiastic about.

You could, of course, find a motivator other than grades to keep kids engaged and hard-working, but find it you must.

Certainly grades can be misused. Students too often connect grades with their self-worth. Teachers and parents have to do a better job of downplaying that connection. Failing shouldn’t be seen as an identity but an opportunity – an open door to think, grow, and improve. Likewise, a high average doesn’t make you a good person any more than owning an art studio makes you Pablo Picasso. But these aren’t problems with grading. These are problems with us.

Grades help kids learn and inform parents where their children stand. Yes, sometimes they present kids with challenges to surmount. But doing so makes them smarter, stronger, and better prepared to withstand the withering heat of the real-world summer.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notification of new columns, email him at Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at and on Twitter @stallings_jody.

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