An Inconvenient Truth About Grades

Jared Cooney Horvath is a globally recognized Science of Learning expert committed to helping teachers, students and parents achieve better outcomes through applied brain and behavioral science.

A Grade-A Oversight ...

“What grades offer is spurious precision ... a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” - Alfie Kohn


Grading – whether via letters, numbers, percentiles, or (increasingly) happy smiley faces – is simply nothing more than a tool


Interestingly, we know when and why this tool was invented. In 1792, Cambridge University professor William Farish devised quantitative grading as a means to quickly shuffle students through his class so he could enroll more pupils and earn a larger pay check.


Little did he know, however, that his simple tool would become a globally adopted phenomenon that precipitated an ideologic shift across the whole of education.


Today, grades are so deeply ingrained into our culture that most people never stop to consider how bizarre and unnatural the practice of judging intellectual performance on the basis of alphabetic or numeric values truly is.


As Neil Postman notes, “To say that someone should be doing better because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man’s essay on the rise of capitalism is an A- and that man’s is a C+ would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.”


Seeing as grading is simply a tool, we learn little by asking questions like, “Will students learn better if we assign more nuanced grades?”, or “How can we re-organize assessment to support improved student outcomes?” 


The more instructive question is, “What worldview are we espousing when we use grades in the classroom?


In other words, what does the tool of grading itself suggest about the world, how it functions, and how it should be approached?


In my latest 'From Theory to Practice' video, I dig into a classic research study that helps us appreciate the correlation between tools (like grades and modern assessment) and our worldviews:


Can Language Restructure Cognition? (Majid, Bowerman, et al | 2004)


Here are some of the questions I tackle in this installment:

  • What is the difference between top-down and bottom-up processing, and what does this suggest about how our brains experience the world?

  • How does our worldview shape our perception, and what major influence on our worldview is usually overlooked?

  • As teachers, how can a research study about language (one of our most basic tools) help us appreciate the imperative of understanding the worldview of our students?

  • How are tools and worldviews related to the utility of grades and modern assessments in schools?

Give it a watch, and let me know what you think in the YT comments section.


And, as always, if you find this video valuable, interesting and/or entertaining, you can support us by liking, sharing and subscribing to our YouTube channel ;)



Video Transcript

Hello everybody, and welcome to this week's From Theory to Practice, where I take a look at the research so you don't have to.


Now, as you may know, I have a new book out called 10 Things Schools Get Wrong (And How We Can Get Them Right).


So, for this series of ten videos, I've deliberately selected research papers that align with the different chapters of that book.


In this installment we're looking at Chapter 3, which is entitled Grades: The Problem With Modern Assessment.


As you might well imagine, this is a huge topic … so rather than tackle it head-on in this video, I want to hit it from the side and see if we can come at it from a kind of cross-angle.


With that in mind, the article I've selected this week is called Can Language Restructure Cognition by Majid and colleagues.


Now, to understand this paper, we have to go back to the very foundations of the brain and how it works …

Click to view remainder of the transcript ...

Did You Enjoy This Post?

Help spread the idea by sharing it with your peers and colleagues ...

NOT ON THE LIST? Click below to join the LME Community ... and receive new Science of Learning articles from Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath every week!