Are we using grades, or are grades using us? Do we get the biggest possible benefit from grading academic work?
by Todd Nelson
April 1, 2008
What if we all got As? Would something be wrong with the grading system? Would "grade inflation" be the obvious charge, or would the standards for excellence be askew? Would we say, "there must be a distribution of all possible grades among all the students for grades to be accurate…preservation of the bell curve!" Nature abhors a vacuum in which competition and an uneven distribution of quality cease to exist!
And yet, something I've been reading makes me wonder, Are we using grades, or are grades using us? Do we get the biggest possible benefit from grading academic work? Who really gives a grade; makes the grade?
"Each student in this class will get an A for the course," says conductor and cellist Ben Zander, at the beginning of his master classes for graduate students in performance at New England Conservatory of Music. His unconventional approach began as an experiment to relieve his students of their "chronic anxiety over the measurement of their performance" that made them "reluctant to take risks with their playing."
Stodgy first violin sections not do justice to the genius of Mahler, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky symphonies. For Zander, Giving the A has turned into his standard of teaching "not as a measurement tool, but as an instrument to open [students] up to possibility."* He says, "The practice of giving the A allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against these students."
Of course there's a hitch. He announces at the start of the term, "Sometime during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, 'Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because….' And in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade." He not only gives away As, he asks for prescience! Whacky conductor.
So why, does this feel so counter-intuitive to all we have experienced of grading in our customary school careers, as students and teachers, I wondered? Giving the A is an unusual concept: part final grade, part assignment, part aspiration-inducing sleight of hand.
One way of looking at it is to see that we're probably already assigning ourselves a future grade—though it's not usually an A, and it rarely ushers us into the realm of new possibility. As students, more of us were probably muddling in the world of self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than living with energizing possibility; assigning ourselves a grade ahead of our accomplishments! How often do most earnest students arrive in a class, course, or life situation already running an internal monologue, assigning themselves a particular grade: "I'm a B+ student…C student…D student."
I did. So let's try a "do over." Dear Mr. Zander: I got an A in Algebra, (this second time through the class) because I finally realized that numeric sentences were actually describing beautiful relationships in the natural world. Once I saw that they were not abstractions to be manipulated by rote and routine, I could grasp them and make them work as they were intended. Finally, math had meaning and purpose! And my thinking about the intricacies of proportion and ratio took on new logic, precision, and depth." I'd like to think I might have avoided that second year in Algebra I in high school, but I'll never know.
Whether or not I ever practice Zander's method as a teacher, it provokes thoughts about just who gives and who receives grades. We tend to adjust grading practices by having only teachers calibrate their scales or change the labels we give to achievement. The assumption is that teachers give grades. Zander reveals who's really responsible for giving the grade: the person doing the work. And when the grade frontloads aspiration and desire it has a more useful effect than when it simply delivers retrospective comparisons to a remote standard. Learning is no longer a solitary, competitive journey, and teachers become partners rather than mere assigners and assessors. It seems like the ultimate intrinsic motivation.
For Zander, and his world class-musician students, it yielded interesting results. One of his students, a Korean flute player, wrote an inspiring letter in her second language, English, but with great fluency in her new language of possibility. "I used to just play notes," she wrote at the start of the term, "but now I found out about the real meaning of every pieces, and I could play with more imagination. Also I found out my value. I found myself to be special person, because I found out that if I believe myself I can do everything."
Another student wrote: "I have changed from desiring inconsequentiality and anonymity to accepting the joy that comes from knowing that my music changes the world."
Zander attributes his own growth and aspiration to the lessons his students taught him, from adjusting tempos in Mahler's ninth symphony to finding new passion in his own cello playing. What could a school accomplish with a motto for performance like this one: "The practice of Giving the A both invents and recognizes a universal desire in people to contribute to others, no matter how many barriers there are to its expression." We'd all get As…and deserve them.
*The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander, Ben Zander.
Todd R. Nelson has been a public and private school English teacher and administrator for 29 years, in schools in Cambridge, San Francisco, Chicago and Maine. He is principal at the Adams School in Castine, Maine, a 54 student K-8 school on the town common in a little town on the coast, where he gets to play four-square at recess, play his bagpipes, and write musicals for the all-school play.