Do grades stifle learning?

Where there is a will, there is an “A”. Some of my readers might remember this commercial from years past. Unfortunately, this indicates that if you don’t get an “A” it is your fault. What does an “A” actually indicate in academics? Most times grades are a subjective set of concepts that people in charge of creating a curriculum have deemed “necessary”. Rather than talk about what a grade provides for an institution, professor, or even society, I want to look at what it does not provide. This is an opinion post, I welcome civil disagreement. We can all be partly right, conversation helps us get closer to being fully right.

I am a retired Marine. I have taught in military schools in excess of 19 years. I have seen many changes in that time. The one change I have desired for almost 10 years is the removal of the current grading system. It was 1967 when I started education in a public school. I was introduced to a world of exploration and discovery; the whole process for an inquisitive mind was overwhelming. There was a grading system for our learning, S – Satisfactory, U – Satisfactory, a very simple and upfront way of accessing progress. This grading system took in to account many different items that were not associated with pure academics. The grading system looked at effort, initiative, and other non-tangibles that are so important for the development of a person. I was not competing with others, I was competing with myself. Learning was such a joy. There was cooperation at that age to help my classmates or be helped by them to understand a concept. Eutopian, possibly, but it worked for a period of time.

As I moved through the academic process grades were soon introduced. This system relied primarily on an “A-F” system with “A” being the ultimate goal and “F” the loathing of every student and parent. This quickly established a hiarchy for the classroom of the smart and not so smart students. Then, the evolution of the grading system added a (+ and -) to the existing “A -F” structure. Now, someone could have an “A+” and really establish superiority. Noticably, the class went from a center for learning to an academic competition. Like any good competition you trim away things not needed, focus on the things that will get you to that ellusive “A+”. As students quickly realized not all people are created equal in academic learning, we observed a chasm form between the intelligent and the less fortunate academic students. Can there ever be equality in a system that clearly exemplifies “This person is more gifted”. Gifted, a word I have come to loathe over the course of my life. School continued on and I started noticing an intriguing metamorphis taking place in my peers. The question “Do we need to know this?” or “Is this on the test?” was regularly heard in my classes. I hear this at a much higher rate in the classes I teach today.

Academics today is a stress machine, rather than a higher learning institute. I regularly see young people, their self-esteem fragile, sometimes even destroyed by the time they arrive to my military classes. The love of learning has been lost. These young people are part of a society (the machine) that acclaims the brilliance of some while having pity on those that have not reached the academic pinnacle. The system has produced a generation of people that has lost the love of reading, the arts, music and the things that express life’s greatest pleasures; being alive and loving others. I listen to a great podcast hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, the podcast is called “The Happiness Lab”. Her latest episode is called “Making the Grade”. Here is the link to the podcast

I long for a day when the love of knowledge and the arts returns. Our children are getting there education from social media sites, video games and streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. Maybe, the safety of these sites from the arduous academic grading system is a relief from the pressures we put on our children. I was fortunate to have peers that motivated me to pursue a life of learning. This learning has come from the most unexpected places and people. The honor roll, dean’s list, Magna Cum Laude or gifted programs, might be destroying our childrens curiosity and love of learning. The current system is broken. If you research the number of young people on anti-anxiety medicine it is disturbing. If you enquire into the number of teenage suicides, it indicates there is something very wrong with our societies. These problems are not the complete result of a biased grading system, but it contributes without a doubt. The grading system I believe has killed that intrinsic curiosity that exists in every young child. If you had to grade society on the education process of our students, what grade would you assign? That grade would be as meaningless as the one’s being given to our children. It is time to consider a new way of determining success in our childrens curriculum.

One thought on “Do grades stifle learning?

  1. Denise Williams says:


    On Sat, Nov 23, 2019 at 6:54 AM Duane’s Thoughts wrote:

    > Duane Williams posted: ” Where there is a will, there is an “A”. Some of > my readers might remember this commercial from years past. Unfortunately, > this indicates that if you don’t get an “A” it is your fault. What does an > “A” actually indicate in academics? Most times grades are” >


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