What’s your GPA? Worried that your nemesis has a 3.9867 GPA and yours is 3.9865, which means your dream school dreams are crushed?

For decades, education systems and policies have been structured around assessments. Any education initiative requires proof that it’s worth funding based on measures of outcomes. Any course requires an assessment that learning outcomes were achieved. Yet like many things we accept as a given not to question, grades were not the natural byproduct or ingredient of learning. Going back in history, Socrates felt that self-awareness, mind-body education, and critical thinking were the backbone of learning. On another continent, the Nalanda tradition of monastic education emphasized debate and reflection to gain insight and further critical and creative thinking. In both east and west, discussion, dialogue, and deductive/inductive reasoning were the critical components, not a letter grade.

Then Yale president Ezra Stiles, experimented with his class in 1875 to give grades, and since then, grades have been part of education in the U.S. and elsewhere. Yet even back in 1912, two Wisconsin researchers warned that there was too much variation from teacher to teacher, so what was seen as standardized testing had always flummoxed educators.

In the Happiness Lab, Dr. Laurie Santos has a fascinating piece about the impact that grades have on learning. How quickly it is for children and adults to seek out external validation for everything, from our math knowledge to how many steps we take in a day (did you do your 10,000 steps?). These days, the average American kid takes about 100 standardized tests. That’s a lot. And are they really able to suss out who is learning? And what are the unintended consequences?

In 2002, University of Michigan researchers found that 80% of students substituted academic success for self-worth. In other words, an A equals I’m good, anything less causes self-esteem to plummet. Long-term grade critic Aflie Kohn argues  that students who are graduated using number grades are less creative and more prone to issues of self-confidence. Schooling focused on grading can become a race to check things off, rather than discovering the joys of seeking out knowledge. In one research study, when students receive qualitative feedback to help them understand where they can improve, they were more likely to improve their performance on essays. The minute they received a grade “A!” or praise “you’re a talented  writer!”, the moment their willingness to take academic risks and intellectual thinking declined.

It doesn’t look like the grading or standardized testing system is going anywhere fast too soon. What would replace it? Who gets to decide that? In the meantime, what might we do to encourage our young people — and ourselves — from relying on external validation as replacements for discovery?

  • Stop measuring

Easier said than done, but how might we create conditions which make it more difficult to compare ourselves from others? Not posting our GPAs, not looking at other people’s, not jumping on social media to see who is doing what better or worse. Rather than measuring how we are performing with others, focus on what we are learning and gaining. This is not to say tune out everything around us – we don’t live in vacuums. A healthy understanding of where we are vis-à-vis others helps us to be realistic and to aim high. Being aware, however, is different than measuring self-worth dependent on someone else.

  • Separate the grade from the learning

While there are external reasons why grades and metrics have a role, not conflating the grade with learning and growth is important. The failures we make now are invaluable to our learning. With one, we never truly push ourselves beyond our preconceived limits. Grades may be useful indicators for us to realize where we still have growth opportunities and where we have natural strengths – as well as reminders of work ethic – but they are separate from the knowledge and skills we gain throughout.

  • Reflect

Learning for the grade often means that once the test is over, the information leeks out of our brains. Pausing to reflect on what we’ve learned that day, that week, helps us to process it and integrate it to our everyday lives. When we operationalize knowledge in that way, we are able to further our learning and build on it.

External measurements have been part of the education for so long. This does not mean we passively accept and not question its validity or usage. This is the time to truly re-evaluate the evaluations. Have grades and similar measures achieved its purpose? For whom is it serving? For whom is it not?

Rather than accepting grades are inevitable, let’s remember what learning is about.

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