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A brief history of grades

October 4, 2010

One of my favorite discussions of the year is when we take out 30-40 minutes to talk about grades. I know this sounds weird, but bear with me a bit, and you’ll see why I like it so much.

Before physics, one of my deep loves was history. I still love it (the BBC’s history of the world in 100 objects is truly one of the best things on the web). So naturally, one of the things that has truly fascinated me is the history of grades. Surprisingly, very little can be found on the web about this, so most of what I’m about to say is mostly speculation and conjecture on my part.

I begin by asking my kids to go back and think about what school must have been like 25,000 years ago, in the paleolithic era. I start by asking students what school must have looked like? A cave, the shade under a tree. Who were your teachers? Parents—humans were still settling in small, nomadic tribes. What were your lessons like? Hunting, fishing, gathering, making fires, tools, shelter. The basics. Very “hands-on.” What was your motivation? You wanted to eat, so you were highly motivated. Were your teachers any good? Yes, since your parents had survived long enough to produce offspring, they must have been excellent hunters, tool makers, and fire builders. What do “tests” look like? “Here, I wounded this rabbit, you kill it. Now I wounded this mammoth, you kill it. Now you go hunt the mammoth yourself.”

So in Paleolithic school, you got 1-1 instruction from awesome teachers in things you wanted to learn with the highest possible motivation (life or death), in the most hands on ways. No wonder we made it out of this era.

Now, let’s set the time machine forward about 24,500 years. We’re going to the early colonial era of US history. Look there—see that young man, working for the silversmith, Paul Revere? What is the classroom like? Still very hands on. How many students are there? 2-3 apprentices per master teacher. How motivated are students? This apprentice had to walk all the way from Concord to come and work with Mr. Revere, he’s incredibly motivated, in fact, he’s starting to love his work. What does an assessment look like? Make me a spoon. How do you get feedback? The master silversmith gives you personal feedback on each piece. How do you react to failure? You try again, and learn as much as possible from mistakes.

So in revolutionary school, we’re still pretty much like Paleolithic school. Education is mostly 1-1, motivation is really high, and lessons are hands-on. Feedback is 1-1, and students and teachers use it to improve.

What were colleges like at this time? The oxford tutorial model was pretty close to the apprentice model. 1-1 instruction, individual feedback, deep motivation. Very few textbooks—learn from the masters themselves.

Now let’s go forward 100 years, to the frontier and one room schoolhouses. Suddenly, we’ve got schools that are whole states away from experts with understanding of physics, or biology, or calculus. How to teach a subject to students from afar? Now we need a textbook. Lessons have to be a little less hands on. Motivation is getting a little bit lower. But if you’ve read any Laura Ingles Wilder, you know you’ve got a caring teacher who’s probably known you and your family for most of your life. Something tells me this is worth a lot.

Let’s roll the clock forward to the industrial revolution. Jobs are changing, more people are joining the workforce, and more people need a basic education to be a part of this new “modernized workforce.” An even more important thread of this story is the fact that more of of population is being educated, as we move past relics like slavery, (even though “separate but equal” dominates the land), and women gain more education as well. Schools are getting bigger and more industrialized, too. It’s no surprise that this is the time when the A-F grading scheme starts to appear in the late 19th century, along with all sorts of other tool to make school more manageable (and factory like). As society is becoming more egalitarian, grading is also becoming more meritocratic—no longer are students arranged by social position.

So industrialized school is bigger, less apprentice model, and more focus on “primers” and less hands on. Grades become a great way to sort students and give crisp, clear feedback about “progress.” Of course, these trends continue to accelerate in the 20th century as the sphere of knowledge grows and grows, and we as a society better begin to fulfill the promise of educating every child.

So much of grades seems to be tied to finding a way to communicate about progress in the most efficient manner possible. This is a natural result of information overload. We see this in the rise of rankings and grades for nearly everything, from vacuum cleaners to colleges. Knowing someone got an “A” means something, and releases the listener from having to evaluate the knowledge/ability of the student. Just as knowing that a car got a 5-star safety rating, or a college is in the top 25 in USNWR means we don’t really have to evaluate the safety of the car or quality of the school ourselves.

Overall, history of education tells two conflicting stories. More people are learning more and more, but this requires instruction that is less and less hands-on and personalized, and feedback that is more succinct and systematized, even if this isn’t what is best for learning. But we can change this.

This led to a great discussion of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and how in this allegory, grades are the shadows, mere representations of the learning, but unfortunately, it’s all many of us can focus on. Which brings us full circle to how we will approach grades in this course. Starting with the mantra:

Let a grade be the beginning of a conversation, rather than the end.

If we start with view of grades as only as a representation of the learning, we can actually have a conversation about what you are learning, and transcend the grades. If we see the grades as the only goal, “the end” then there’s little left to do but to whine about a missed point here and there.

I’ll post more on how we’re going to do that with self assessment later. In the meantime, please correct me if you think I’ve gotten any historical details wrong above. I’ve tied to be true to history here, but I’m sure there are mistakes.

If you’re curious how this conversation goes in real life, here’s a video. It’s a bit too much of me telling, but I’m not sure how to do it any other way. Suggestions are more than welcome, and if you can think of a more effective way to get these points across, I’m listening.

Update: I found this really cool infographic from Daily Infographic that summarizes many of my points about the history of education. Maybe there’s something to this.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2011 11:04 pm

    Definitely a conversation worth having! Don’t have time to watch the video, but having read carefully through your description, I can think of a few angles you might be interested in. One is this prezi by Maria Andersen about the history and future of education. It’s about post-secondary schools but just as relevant to public schools, I think. It’s packed with “easter eggs” (videos, pictures, etc.) that students might enjoy exploring themselves, which could change the talk/listen ratio.

    Another is the RSAnimate talk by Ken Robinson that describes the role of industrialization in compulsory education.

    If I’ve understood correctly, you’re trying to help students stop seeing grades as a force of nature and start seeing them as a social construct, one that might even be outdated, or at least one that is not the tool for every job. That conversation necessarily encompasses lots of tangential points (including, as you mentioned, whether learning can be accurately measured at all). I’m sure that analysis of social class is not your main goal… however, it’s so important in the history of schooling that I bet you could increase student participation by bringing it up. Did 19th century reforms really prevent students from being ranked by social position? What about today: is education arranged by social position? Are grades? Did institutionalized schooling result in people learning more? More of what? Was there anything they learned less of? What do your grandparents know that you don’t? Where did they learn that? Who decided that those skills weren’t important? Is there such a thing as a skill becoming extinct, similar to a species becoming extinct? Which skills is this happening to that it shouldn’t be? Which skills is this not happening to that it should be?

    Another angle to get students thinking critically about grades is to ask them for “the most important lesson you’ve ever learned”, or some other question designed to elicit learning that happens outside of school. I’ve found that students often treat things learned in school and things learned outside of school as if they result from two separate processes of learning. If you can help them see language or sports or baking as “learning”, it may be possible to get into a conversation about what would have happened to that learning if it had been graded.

    If you haven’t read The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn, it’s worth reading. Your students might enjoy the short story at the front — it’s a pretty strong indictment of grades. Or it might make them cry. Hard to say. If you can’t get your hands on a copy (it’s out of print), let me know and I’d be happy to email you a scanned version of the story.

    And last but not least… it might be worth reminding your students that apprenticeship isn’t a curious relic from a bygone age. It’s a proud practise that’s alive and well, and if cold water from the ground and sky magically comes out hot from a tube in your bathroom, you’ve seen how effective it is. Perhaps a homework question could be about ways of learning that don’t involve grades, and a comparison to ways of learning that do involve grades. Good luck!

    • February 25, 2011 10:03 pm

      Mylene, Thanks for the awesome comment and many great suggestions. I’ve seen the Ken Robinson video and should share it with my kids to see what they think. I’ve also followed Maria’s work for a while, and it’s great. You’ve given me a ton of ideas for how I can turn this discussion from a passive lecture into more of a real activity that explores issues of class and education that might really expand my students’ horizons. Thanks for the link to the teenage liberation handbook—that looks fascinating and like it might cause a revolution at some schools (mine included). And you’re totally right about apprenticeship. I recently finished reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, and loved the lessons of this book. One of the most intellectually enriching classes I took in high school was drafting, which I loved so much I took 2 years of it.

      • February 25, 2011 11:34 pm

        Oh good — I’m glad you found it useful (sometimes my marathon comments get the better of me). This is one of my favourite topics and I wish it was a more frequency subject of conversation. Thanks for the book recommendation — I’m looking forward to checking it out.


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