Education is about grading – and that sucks

Post ImageIt is no secret that I have a lot of issues with our education system. I think there are lots of things that could be done better, especially fixing this:

“All through school, from kindergarten up, you were taught that mistakes are a bad thing. You were downgraded for the mistakes that you made.

It is perfectly apparent from what [schools] do in examinations where errors are identified, [that] education is not about learning. It is about grading. Because if they were interested in learning, they would give you the same examination back a week later, to see if you had corrected your mistakes. But they’re not interested in that, they’re interested in giving you a grade.

So it is impressed on you, mistakes are a bad thing. [Ed: And learning by making mistakes is a bad thing.]”

Russell Ackoff Talk, ISSS Cancun 2005, 49th Meeting

Experience should confirm that some of the most important lessons you learn in life come after making a mistake. Too bad the education system doesn’t feel the same way.

Note that in the above quote he doesn’t mention teachers, just schools. I know there are a lot of teachers who would rather help students learn than simply assign them a grade, but their jobs depend on assigning marks. And unfortunately, I think too many teachers put this fact (that they need to produce good test scores) ahead of the educational well-being of their students. For more on this, you should definitely read the first chapter of the wonderful Freakonomics.

Read: Nivi

12 thoughts on “Education is about grading – and that sucks

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I would be more ok with it if schools and teachers were clear about what consitutes a right and a wrong answer. It’s easy to mark answers in classes dealing with math or science, when there is often only one answer. But for other classes, like English and Social Sciences achieving a mark is a much more nuanced process, and no explanation is ever given to what knowledge needs to be demonstrated and how that knowledge needs to be displayed in a test. Even more than that, in University achieving a mark is quite a bit more nuanced than that, since the institution usually gives the professor almost total freedom to pass and fail people as they see fit, and what that entails usually is willfully hidden.

  2. You know there are certain things you can do if you want to try to improve the education system. For example I choose to become a teacher for that reason. Other things you can do is goto PTA meetings, join the school board, vote for the education minister, etc.

  3. Like the fall of Capitalism? Haha. In recent Ed textbooks there has been a lot of talk about how schools are starting to move away from the traditional teacher lecturing students to more hands on stuff by students. They are starting to be more concerned with the actual learning of students, rather than just straight memorization of facts.

    That being said, teachers still need to prepare their students for provincial exams in grade 3,6,9,12. I know you don’t like standardized exams, and I probably share the same feelings towards them as you do. But I am not convinced it is all bad. Grades are still fairly important. Grades are the only objective way to determine who should be the doctors in our society for example. Surely we can’t just let anyone who wants to be a doctor become a doctor just because they want to.

    Education is supposed to prepare students for society. Our society has some strict rules that you are to adhere to. Being punctual to a job for example is a reason why we have class bells. If nothing else, grades in the public school system are a reflection of your ability to follow these rules. If a teacher tells you chapter 2 will be on the exam and you better study it, well it’s still up to the student to decide if he/she will study it and how much effort they will put into studying it.

    Our schools don’t simply teach facts that need to be memorized. They also teach the values of our society. In our current capitalist society, we value money. We value being ahead of the next guy. We are the ultimate competitive society. Standardized tests are the results of always competing. How am I doing compared to the next guy?

  4. I don’t think that we teach kids to be greedy bastards, they bring that in on their own.

    In my (limited) experience, teachers are expected to make miracles happen within the confines of tight budget restrictions. When our society begins to value public education the way it should be, then we’ll be able to move away from grade-based education, and focus on more wholistic learning experiences, where students are able to pursue a field of study of interest to them without having to worry about fitting in the confines of a traditional school.

    I think that KoGs is mostly right, in that there comes a time when it is left up to the student to decide how much of Chapter 2, 3, 4, etc is to be reviewed and studied. When the teacher has exhausted all of his or her options at the front of the classroom, in terms of getting the material out to the students, that information is no longer in their hands. It’s a fairly simple process of Input-Store-Retrieve. The teacher is responsible for the input of the information, and aiding in the storage, but the student must ultimately be responsible for the retrieval of such information. Unfortunately, given the dire financial situations of many districts across the continent, tests are the easiest, cheapest and most efficient way of evaluating student knowledge in a certain subject. Give us money, and we will move away from that.

    KEVIN: English and Social aren’t as objective as one might think. While it is true that teachers tend to give better marks for writing skills to their better students, there is always a way to objectively assess understanding of an essay topic or long answer question. First of all, looking at the answer, a teacher asks "did this student ACTUALLY answer the question?" If the answer is yes, then they will score considerably better than the student who ‘sort of’ addresses the question, or ‘doesn’t’ address the question at all. Most education ministries or school jurisdictions have some very concrete guidelines about what constitutes a certain grade for a response. The beauty of English and Social is that it allows students to think outside the box; as long as they can back up what they’re saying, they will be fine.

    MACK: I don’t know how you can say that we need a change that strikes at the heart of the problem without being prepared to back it up and do something about it. KoGs is right, in order for change to be affected, people who have problems with the system need to get involved. I’ve always been a firm believer in that principle, so if you’re not prepared to actually DO something about it, other than blog, don’t complain.

  5. Megan and KoGs…as teachers, I didn’t expect you to agree with my sentiments. Not that it matters.

    Last time I checked Megan, this was MY blog. I’ll write whatever the fuck I want to, thank you very much. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

    That said, I can say we need to make a change and not have an action to back it up for a very simple reason: I haven’t thought enough about it. If I am going to do something, I want to do something that is meaningful for me and for the cause. At this point, all I’ve really thought about is how I think/feel/believe there must be something better than the grading system we have. Nothing more, nothing less. When I get to the next step, you’ll be the first to know, mmk?

    I agree KoGs, that our education system performs many valuable social functions, and I don’t think we want to lose that aspect of the system.

  6. Megan…that last comment was a little harsher than I intended, but I take exception to your last few words. Let’s try this:

    I think blogging about it is important. For me, it allows me to flesh out some of my thoughts and to better think things through, not to mention I can gather some feedback. For everyone else, it gets them to think about the issue, even if it is only for a few moments. And you know what they say, two heads are better than one!

  7. Yeah the first attempt was pretty harsh, unnecessarily so. I don’t recall telling you what you can and can’t say, and I do know that this is your blog, but since you’ve opened up your blog to comments from others, I can take full advantage of that feature and tell you what I THINK about what you are saying. Maybe you felt like it was a personal attack, but it’s not. It’s a simple fact that most people who complain about something (education, health care, the environment, politics) are the people who choose not to do anything about those issues. I simply saw the same sort of thing with your comment, simply because you gave absolutely no indication what KIND of change is needed, just that something needs to be done to make it better. (If you’ll look back, I said "I’ve always been a firm believer in that principle, so if you’re not prepared to actually DO something about it, other than blog, don’t complain." Perhaps I should have said "I’ve always been a firm believer in that principle, and when people can’t do anything other than complain and criticize, maybe they should think twice about what they are saying since they’re not prepared to take it to the next level" which would have emphasized that I wasn’t necessarily speaking to you directly, but to people in general as a matter of principle.)

    You can take exception to what I said all you want, but I take exception to someone saying that we need a wholesale change of a system that simply cannot be changed in a meaningful way until our society places more importance (and therefore more money) on that system. I don’t necessarily disagree with you, but I believe that the most effective way to change our education system is to do it from the inside rather than the outside, which goes back to what KoGs says about getting involved.

    Unfortunately, most people simply talk, and they don’t do anything. Blogging, in that sense, without an action to back it up, is much the same. I understand that blogging is something that’s important to you, but as long as your ideas only go as far as your personal blog and maybe to a few of your readers, nothing is ever going to change. (That goes for anyone with ideas that they blog about, but which hardly anyone reads.)

    As a side note: if you’re getting annoyed when people disagree with you, why open yourself up to it? I also notice that the only person you’ve ever sworn at on your blog is me. And I KNOW I’m not the only person who has said something you disagree with.

  8. You might not be the only one I disagree with, but somehow, you always find a way to argue. You just push the right buttons I guess. Sometimes it feels like you argue for the sake of arguing.

    Yup, comments are here for you to use. I’m not getting annoyed, I was merely expressing an opinion…that is…I think the act of blogging these thoughts is important.

    As I said before, I like getting other people’s feedback…even if they disagree with me. That’s part of the reason I blog about it.

  9. Mack – There is a wonderful school called Sudbury Valley School that has no grading as well as a whole lot more (for example, the school is democratically run; the students have the freedom and responsibility to decide what they want to do/learn; age mixing promotes learning; conversation is prevalent; play/imagination; individuality is supported; etc.). Their website is The site has a number of excerpts from books they’ve published about the philosophy and the school. Regards, Jason

  10. I looked at that website, and I think that it’s an interesting concept, except that in a society like ours (in Canada) a system like that on a large scale is impossible. The school charges nearly $6000 (USD) tuition per year for the first child in each family, and a sliding scale for siblings. Unfortunately, that $6000 would be spent by most families ensuring that their children have a roof over their heads and clothes to wear to their more "prison-like" schools.

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