It’s easy to name the problems; it’s much harder to fix them

This week’s content has my brain spinning. I have heard much of it before: grades are bad, motivation is key, rewards and punishment are unhelpful. Every time I hear these things, I don’t disagree. There is plenty of proof; however, I am stuck with the same question: how do we fix it?

Our society lives by the motto “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Here’s the problem, though: we disagree about what is broken.

I am no expert, and I have not been teaching that long, but in my experience, I feel confident in saying this: education is broken. We need to fix it.

Grades are a motivator, yes, but they can also motivate laziness. A student can be motivated to get the lowest grade possible to pass. That, inherently, means the student is not motivated to learn; they are motivated to get by. Education should make students learn, not get grades.

I completely grasp the idea of eliminating grades. As someone who loves qualitative data, I see the merit in written summaries, conferences, and conversations. There are more meaningful (and useful) than a letter or a number. I also see how very time-consuming those things are for a teacher. Moreover, I see students compare grades and scores, essentially ranking themselves compared to others but never caring about what was learning and how they are growing. Practicality and education are always at odds.

I always argue that the greatest motivator of human behavior is fear. We fear the bad grade, losing money, disappointing people, and many other things. It’s interesting to think about how education–the fundamental thing we provide to everyone–basically exacerbates and solidifies these fears in people from a young age. Go to the potty? You get an M&M. Don’t? Disappointment. It starts so young, but the sad reality is that it never ends. Life is a cycle of the same game with different scenarios.

I feel like I am just continuing to agree and note the problems, but I am not providing any more solutions. Truly, I think the easiest solution is to try to implement new tactics. It requires research, trial and error, and effort–things that most people dislike. If enough of it is done, though, the new norm will start. We must be dynamic.

Finally, I have some thoughts about MOOCs. My dissertation work is about increasing access to education so that students, regardless of SES or geographic location, can have access to a good education–one that is not determined by things out of their control. For this, I believe MOOCs are great; they are working toward that goal. However, the depth of content and course design leaves much to be desired. I think the idea is awesome, but much needs to be done to improve the quality.


17 Replies to “It’s easy to name the problems; it’s much harder to fix them”

  1. I appreciate your post this week, and love that you point out that, not only do we disagree over how to fix the problems, we disagree over what the problems even are; we disagree, as you say, over what’s even broken.

    You’re right that we teach out of fear, that students will do the minimum to get by. Just look at how Dr. Nelson doesn’t want to name a word-count minimum for our blogs and responses, for example. Doing so, she says, will encourage us to stick to the standard, rather than encourage us to respond as we see fit. And she’s right. A minimum we do have in this class, though, is responding to three posts per week, and I’d imagine that many of us only respond to that number. I wonder how many we’d respond to if we didn’t have a set number. Would it be more?

    I don’t fault us or our students for doing the minimum work. We all do it out of a system of survival, rather than one of learning. We respond to all of life’s pressures—to all our fears—by trying to hit each point and do so as perfectly as possible, which, as a result, makes us do the minimum amount of work. I’d wonder, though, if our assignments were more low-stake, how much more of an improvement we’d see with respect to play, creativity and innovation.

    1. You bring up great points. We do the minimum because it’s all that is asked of us; by not stating a minimum, we often do more, pushing because we want to make sure we do enough.

      As someone who likes rules and guidelines, the idea of eliminating those things in education is scary; however, it would be interesting to see what comes about. We, as humans, are competitive, so if we see others doing something, we may push to do more, even though with no set guideline for success.

      1. I agree. This kind of positive peer pressure has potential. The way we naturally classify environments goes well with this model. If it is not a threat, then maybe it’s play. And from there it connects with our inherent aspirations to “get good”. There will always be students who would want to play the system and not the learning game, but I think without the rigorous grading system the effects of their disengagement is mitigated.

        Also, your thesis topic is awesome ! I love the MOOCs.

        1. Yes, you’re right about students wanting to play the system without learning the game. As a teacher, you have to be aware of this to design your course to avoid being “played.”

  2. Thanks for your post. I think you’re not right an the issue is that the solution isn’t easy and honestly probably isn’t cheap. Giving authority back to schools is perhaps an initial first step we can take or even just finding one school willing to work with a research group to try things out. For me, the newest issue i worry about with eliminating grades is the affect of biases perhaps affecting the quality of education specific children are getting. I’m not sure if this is realistic but another post got me thinking about the one upside of standardized testing and it was the equality that it allows. I want to begin to change how we educate kids but i also want to make sure we don’t do it while solely looking at the European, pretty low diversity model.

    1. I don’t have enough time to explain how much I feel standardized testing is not equitable, but I will just say this: in essence, the idea is good: provide the same test and standards for all students to be successful. In practice, it is a dramatic failure. It varies state to state, school district to school district, and how money is spent dramatically affects the outcome of student success, which really has nothing to do with education at all. There is much that can be done to improve it, but like my title says, how that is done is a matter of opinion.

  3. I agree… Grades are absolutely not the best motivator nor a true indicator of someone’s abilities. However, I think that trying to fix the issues surrounding grades will be a long battle… Grades are tied to so many things, including scholarship awards, entry to university programs, hiring processes, and so much other stuff. On a related note, standardized tests are used to evaluate students on an “equal playing field;” it’s no secret that some schools are better at teaching their students than others, and standardized tests are the (admittedly terrible) solution to trying to determine how good a student from one school is in comparison to a student at a different school. From this perspective, the desire for quick easy answers and simplified feedback isn’t just a student problem– it’s a societal problem. Schools, teachers, employers, and others place a lot of power in grades, and that is what ultimately needs to change.

  4. I think you nailed it by saying “it’s a societal problem.” Education is a societal problem, and in my opinion, one of the biggest problems is those making the decisions for our society are not educators. Yes, the idea behind standardized tests is good in nature, but in practice, it’s a disaster. As you said, moving away from grading will be a slow process, as we have a need for standardization for comparison. I definitely don’t have the answer to that, but I do agree with the need.

  5. Hey Kathleen,
    Really interesting post and a fun read. I really like your comment that “Grades are a motivator, yes, but they can also motivate laziness. A student can be motivated to get the lowest grade possible to pass. That, inherently, means the student is not motivated to learn; they are motivated to get by.” It reminds me of when I hear students talk about what grade they need on the final to get a certain letter grade in the class. What a waste of time and how disappointing that the students care more about getting a certain grade than understanding the course material. I think this week’s GEDI class is going to be very exciting. I’m looking forward to our class discussion.

    1. Yes, students are often more concerned with the grade than content mastery. It is certainly challenging to motivate students to appreciate content knowledge because they simply equate that with an A. The merit of that A is different depending on the course. We have all worked hard for an A; we have also barely worked for an A. That letter can be highly variable.

  6. So much to talk about here (including the advantages of cMOOCs over MOOCs), but I’ll just note that I realize that getting rid of grades isn’t really an option for most of us. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of things you can do to to shift students’ focus away from competition (and the grade they want) in favor of curiosity and interest in learning. I think students follow the instructor’s lead. If they realize that you are genuinely interested in what they think and how they make sense of the world, it’s a lot easier to get them to engage with the material and quit obsessing about scores and grades.

    1. I definitely agree with this. In my experience, when students can understand the practicality of the content or how it will affect their lives, they become more engaged. However, sometimes certain course content is so dry that it is hard to translate that notion. Regardless, as you noted, the professor’s lead is highly influential in this.

  7. The title of your post really resonated with me. I feel like I’m in the same boat as you. Grades can be good motivators for some, but like you said they “can also motivate laziness.” With little expertise on this topic, qualitative assessment seem much better to me– they allow students to receive constructive feedback, suggestions on what skills need improvement, and even how they might go about further developing those skills. There are some institutions that don’t use grades. For example, Evergreen State College in Washington does narrative evaluations. But it’s definitely difficult for the entire educational system to challenge the established norm of grades.

    1. Narrative evaluations, in my opinion, are far better than a grade; however, they are also far more time-consuming, making them more difficult to do for teachers. I also like the idea of conferences for grades. Those are essentially narrative discussions, which require less writing (but probably just as much–if not more–time).

  8. Thanks for your thoughts, Kathleen! Like you said, these are complex problems with no quick fix, but I especially appreciate that you mention that the solution involves trying new things. I think sometimes we can get so caught up in overarching problems and only consider solutions that come from the top down instead of how we can work within our locus of control to find solutions that might work from the bottom up. Change can start either way.

    1. You bring up something that I have strong opinions about: top down vs. bottom up. Our society seems to be structured entirely by the former. Until that changes, meaningful change in any area–especially education, though–cannot occur.

  9. Hi Kathleen- Thank you for bringing ideas about solutions to the table in this week’s blog. It’s interesting that you note that our society is built around not breaking things, and end with an argument about disruption in the education space. Really, I think that there are components of society that want to maintain the status quo, but there are also large segments of disruptors. The tech space is one of these. Which also ties into what you’ve identified as a potential solution – learning not dependent on geography. The 1) new tactics, 2) trial and error, and 3) dynamic nature of problem solving are the backbone of programming and creating new products.

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