I am blogging as a parent of a little girl (she would say big girl, but anyways, she’ll always be my baby) who is entering Grade 4 this year in British Columbia. Academically, she has done very well throughout her schooling thus far. But, I still worry.
I am concerned about the letter grades she will likely start receiving this school year. I am concerned that the inclusion of letter grades into her educational experience will now impact her passion toward learning and her intrinsic motivation to learn. I worry about the pressure she will place on herself to try to “get” the highest letter grades. I have already told her that letter grades will not be a priority for her dad and I. Her Grade 3 teacher introduced them to letter grades as a way to “get prepared” for Grade 4. We have talked about the focus will always be on the learning for us as a family and that the letter grades she receives won’t really matter to us.
While I have been careful not to focus too much on letter grades (and why I am discussing it here), I know that it could be a HUGE focus in Grade 4. And while there will not be pressure to receive straight A’s or the like from home, I know that there will likely be pressure from her peers. They will be comparing marks and competing against one another. “I got 4 A’s, how many did you get?”
I don’t believe that letter grades have a place in today’s elementary schools. These extrinsic motivators actually hinder the learning process. In fact, in his book, Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn writes,
“Anything that gets children to think primarily about their performance will undermine their interest in learning, their desire to be challenged, and ultimately the extent of their achievement.” (p. 159)
Instead of focusing on grades, as Kohn asserts, teachers could focus more positively and help students to approach tasks, topics, or concepts with a different mindset to
“discovering something rather than ‘learning about’ it.” (p. 211)
Kohn talks about fellow researcher, Bruner, who says that the benefit of focusing on discovery instead of learning is
that “the child is now in a position to experience success and failure not as a reward and punishment, but as information.” (p. 211)
Kohn goes on to describe five suggestions for helping uncover each child’s motivation and focus on discovery. This reminds me of Kindergarten. I’ve always said that each grade should have at least a little (but, hopefully more than that) bit of Kindergarten in it! Here are Kohn’s five suggestions for educators in today’s classrooms:
“1. Allow for active learning.
2. Give the reason for an assignment.
3. Elicit their curiosity.
4. Set an example.
5. Welcome mistakes.” (pg. 211-212)
I just can’t help but think about how much more motivated and engaged our students would be (both those who struggle academically and those who do not) if we took away the letter grades and focused on discovery and the above five suggestions. This is what I want for my own daughter who is entering “intermediate” grades. To be honest, it scares me to think of her getting letter grades and what impact they may have on her motivation, engagement, and overall interest in school and learning.
If you’d like more information about the book, Punished by Rewards, you may want to check out this interview with Alfie Kohn by ASCD: Punished by Rewards? A Conversation with Alfie Kohn. You may also want to read some teacher’s stories about implementing the Grading Moratorium on Joe Bowers blog, for the love of learning. You might also want to take some time to watch some of Alfie Kohn’s videos about Punished By Rewards.
I’m just a mom concerned about her little girl. This concern does not stop at my own family though. I watch the students in our schools and wonder how they would do without the pressure of letter grades. I wonder how these letter grades truly impact our struggling learners. How do these letter grades affect the learners who know how to “do school” well and get those A’s? It leads me to the question, “How can we do better?”
As a parent, I would just love to be able to tell the teacher not to put letter grades on my child’s report card. Hmmmmm… I wonder if I could do that?