You don’t have a grade yet…
In reading Shawn’s great discussion on the value of witholding grades from students so that they will focus on learning. I’ve been thinking about this more and more. Though many schools battle this problem, I’m often convinced that my school is ground zero for this insanity. We have teachers who post grades on the wall in the 6th grade, we have teachers that love to talk about averages, standard deviations, numbers of a’s, b’s, and c’s and the highest grade on every assignment. We have honor roll, valedictorians (boys and girls, plus salutatorians), endless numbers of awards, pretty much everything you can think of that would make Alfie Kohn’s skin crawl. Fixed mindset, baby.
So I’m trying to think of a way to begin to help students see the harmful effect of constantly focusing on grades, rather than learning, and I’ve come up with the post below. I’d love any feedback you have.
Why you don’t grade unfinished art, and how this applies to you
Imagine you’re an artist…
(you don’t have to imagine, if you figured out the growth mindset, you should know you are an artist).
Now imagine you are starting with a blank canvas. Ready to begin your masterpiece.
Here you go:
What will you paint? How will you begin? So many possibilities.
Now, imagine you put your first pencil line on the canvas to begin to outline your ideas. And along comes a critic:
“Hmmpf,” he says “I can zee this is going to be—how to say—’le art de terrible. I give it a C+.”
“But I just sketched one line,” you say.
“yes, and it is le terrible,” he replies.
“But how can I improve it? I can erase it,” you say.
“You cannot erase ze horribleness. Move on!” he says.
And so you sketch some more. “Horrible, Ugh, C+, yuck! And you call this a sketch?” His criticism never seems to stop.
How long do you think you could go before you’d stop painting altogether? What if you’d always grown up with a critic evaluating your every stroke, giving you a grade for each sketch mark, every drop of paint. How do you think this would affect the art you might produce? Would it even matter if the critic said good things or bad—what if every comment sounded like “Magnifique! Superb, Bravo?” Do you know any more how to be a better artist, or what makes your work so great (or horrible)?
Something tells me you’d never get around to painting this:
At the time, Van Gogh’s techniques were so new, so unorthodox, that they flew in the face of what was proper art. Of course, Van Gogh knew this, since he’d been studying art for years.
Now imagine a different studio. Here you come and paint. You sketch, you erase, and you lay down paint, then realize you want to change it, and you do. You get feedback, but this time, it’s this person giving you feedback.
She waits for you to put more than a few pencil sketches on the canvas before saying anthing. And then she asks questions, lots of question:
“Why did you draw that there?”
“How are you using shadows?”
“What is the central focus of your piece?”
“Have you considered how negative space is shaping your work?”
And you ask questions too, craving her feedback, always given when a gentle touch.
“I think you might want to practice with using the pallete knife to outline shapes a bit more, to better emphasize the shadows.”
And so you go. Asking a question here, taking suggestion there. Painting, revising, painting some more. Until eventually you finish. And then, as most great artists realize, you never finish. Now you can understand the following quote:
Art is never finished, only abandoned. —Leonardo da Vinci
Is there any question that the artwork you finished would be better in every way, than it would be under the “guidance” of the first critic? Most importantly would your own value of the art not be immeasurably greater? Is there any question that you would be a better artist, more capable of assessing the quality of your own work?
My hypothesis is that trying to grade an unfinished piece of art, lessens the value of the art itself, and pushes the artist to try to create something that will satisfy the critic, rather than the artist himself.
In contrast, witholding judgment on the value of the art, and instead focusing on improvement and feedback around theme, technique, subject and all sorts of detail, allows the artist to explore, to make mistakes and learn, and ultimately produce more satisfying art, in the eyes of both the artist and the critic.