What are grades really for?


There was once a study done where a large group of school-aged children were given an examination.  Those whose grades were in the top 50th percentile where commended on their high grades.  Those whose grades were in the bottom 50th percentile where commended for their efforts.

Then both groups (the above and below the 50th percentile) were asked to select between two tests for the second round of the experiment.  Those who were commended for their results selected the easier of the two tests. Those who were commended for their efforts selected the more difficult test.

This is eerily similar to how adults would behave in similar situations.  Only instead of accolades for results, there is usually remunerations involved.  But if no money is involved, then it is if to say, “Well, if we are not going to be given anything for our efforts, we might as well learn something.” It is rather odd – indeed paradoxical – that we inhibit learning and the desire for learning by bestowing praise and/or reward upon people for their results.

We all want to learn. We are born curious as all get out. Just watch any infant for a few minutes.  Something breaks down along the way and seeking approval becomes more important. That is damaging in my opinion and many sociologists agree.  I am eager to explore, why do we give grades when by doing so we are discouraging curiosity which is nature’s fuel for learning?  Learning is not successful when it is performance based. In the current issue of Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra and Marten Hansen state:

“When performance goals dominate an environment, people are motivated to show others that they have a valued attribute such as intelligence or leadership. When learning goals dominate, they are motivated to develop the attribute.”

As suggested above, extrapolation of this into the workplace is simple and obvious.  Should we be surprised that we must continually provide incentives to get people to produce?  We have created the need for the incentives merely by using them.  We have depleted ourselves of our inborn  tendencies to learn and contribute by dangling extrinsic motivators.  In some cases, this is so much so that many intrinsic desires have atrophied.

So back to my question. If grades produce a reduction in the desire to make mistakes and learn, why do we give them.   Might it have more to do with gauging how successfully the one called ‘teacher’ is influencing (dare I say manipulating) the mind of the one called ‘student’?

In a not-too-distant future post, I hope to share some thoughts on how to re-invigorate intrinsic drivers.  It is intrinsic drivers and motivators that have begotten just about every significant advancement experienced by the human race.

In closing, I wish to thank three noteworthy authors for their work which has become, and will continue to be, a great inspiration for me: Alfie Kohn, Paul Marciano, and Dan Pink.

Thanks for reading. As always, comments are welcome. Have a great day!

Matt G.

About Matt Gorman

Life-long learner. Collaboration enthusiast. Avid cyclist.
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