Becoming “Real”

There are few things in life that confound me more than humans choosing to do something – often repetitively – when they know the outcome will be unfair, unreasonable, unrewarding and/or unrevealing. Grading performance in an academic setting is one of those things. Alfie Kohn’s arguments for re-thinking assessment are both sound (research-based) and logical.  One particular revelation struck me as being at the heart of the matter: Maehr and Midgley’s (1996) observation that “an overemphasis on assessment can actually undermine the pursuit of excellence.” Kohn himself summarized the issue even more clearly: “the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing.” Isn’t this completely counter to what is intended to be accomplished in the education endeavor?

This observation is reflected in a few of the blog posts others wrote reflecting on this topic:

Vanessa Guerram did an interesting post on the difference between educating for the workforce (filling a need of society) versus educating to empower [the individual].

The notion that somehow economic security trumps individual fulfillment has confounded me for years. And as Vanessa eloquently acknowledges “if education systems focus on students’ learning experiences, education will be about empowering students so they can find the tools they need to make their difference in the world.”

If students are able to focus on becoming experienced – possessing both skills and understanding – won’t they be productive citizens and contribute to the greater good of society?

Jaci Drapeau finds Kohn’s arguments limited and more synergy with Elbow’s argument for “more evaluation” which focuses on growth of students’ abilities or sophistication.

I appreciate Jaci’s reading of Elbow. Through her blog post the clarity of the language used – evaluation versus assessment – was more clear after contemplating it from her perspective. Evaluation, in Elbow’s work, is akin to an apprentice relationship: the student learns from a master and receives guidance, crtique, and challenges along the way to refining one’s craft/understanding. Through the experiences one learns and becomes more capable of applying understanding to new situations, problems or innovation.

Lauren Kennedy questions the feasibility of an alternative evaluation system (narrative) in the context of a system that is based upon summative assessment and grades quantified in numbers.

Lauren’s contemplation of where would the education system be without some sort of number-based assessment system was also clarifying. It helped to see the existing system as serving its own needs rather than those of the individual “engaged … in what they’re doing.” (Kohn

Becoming a real _______ [can be filled with any occupation or title] requires the development of the skills, mindset and demonstrated proficiencies that are expected within the field(s). And, while we have established systems where grades represent progress toward becoming real, they rarely reflect ‘real’ anything.

Feedback (both positive and negative) is essential to progressing and developing one’s craft.  Few humans exist and work simply for the benefit of themselves. Effective feedback can be liberating for the perfectionist and the individual who is stuck in an unproductive process: it can be the catalyst for new perspective that leads to original insight. Feedback that leads to an informed evaluation of a student’s progress – their growth – through certain carefully crafted exercises/projects/artifacts intended to develop one’s skills, thinking and articulation should be the aim of any educational endeavor. Grades mean next to nothing to anyone involved in the ‘earning’ or ‘distribution’ if there is no meaningful and intentional feedback.



Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership69(3), 28-33. Retrieved from:

Maher, M. L., & Midgley, C. (1996). Transforming school culture. CO: Westview.