“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: