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How (Not) To Judge a Fish

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

This describes perfectly how our school grading system, A-F, judges students. It is a one-dimensional system that communicates with one letter the value of a student and all they've done during the year. It has resulted in the same thing as the fish: the vast majority of students believing they are stupid. This has had devastating consequences and genius is abandoned and greatness untapped.

My contention is that this grading system is grossly inadequate for what it supposedly represents. Dr Kim Gordon says it this way: "There is growing recognition that grades demotivate and really only measure failure, mainly the failure of an obsolete education model....It needs to be scrapped and replaced.

Trivia Question

How are you at Trivial Pursuits? Here's a question: What do Thomas Jefferson, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Galileo, and Plato all have in common?

Answer: None of them were ever given grades.

It is the love for discovery that motivates learning, not the threat or reward of a grade. As a result, giving single-point feedback to students by a single grade has many consequences. associated with it. Here are three of them.

Students Learn to Avoid Risk

A-F grading systems train students to avoid risk, and in fact, train them to become afraid of risk. There is so much stigma and negativity around an 'F' and pride and ego around an 'A', that most students take the path of least resistance and look for easy 'A's.

Isn't this just the opposite of what we want?

Don't we want students to dream big and take risk? What life-altering, great things have ever been accomplished without them? But we've created the exact opposite: an entire generation afraid of experiencing failure. I think we've overlooked the fact that those who are not afraid of failure have great self-esteem. If we are watching, we learn more through failure than success. No one wants to fail, but neither should we fear it.

Dutch designer Marcel Wanders once argued: “Doing a good project in school should be forbidden…students have to make as many mistakes as possible, and learn from it.”

That brings me to wonder if there should be an award and scholarship given to the student who has tried the most things and failed at the most things. It's likely they have made some amazing discoveries alongside what matters most in life: giving honor to all, and grace to all.

The Goal in School has Become Grades, Not Learning

The A-F grading system has changed the primary goal in school from learning, to grades, since they are the sole measure of communicating a student's accomplishments. Yet most of the greatest advancements in history have come from creativity, imagination, curiosity, and empathy.

And Laszlo Bock, the former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, said that "GPA are worthless criteria and predict nothing".

"This scenario crossed my mind this morning: Thirty patients, all basically the same age, file into a room and they take their seats. A doctor enters the room. The doctor has documents (presented in textbook format) that have calculated the average health of the thirty people in the room. The doctor then prescribes medical treatments according to that average. Thirty students, all basically the same age, file into a classroom and take their seats..."

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GPA, while intended to communicate something very different, has morphed into the common assessment and judgment of all people, no matter how different. It is given an inflated level of importance in society while many and greater attributes have been ignored.

Grades are Inadequate Feedback

This method of feedback is narrow and one dimensional. It loses the reality that people are complex, multi-dimensional beings. Personal character doesn't matter in an A-F system because we judge all fish the same. It reduces hundreds of days of effort and trials and victories and relationships and struggles and heroic moments to a single letter. As such it has powerful consequences. By them, most students believe they are stupid. By them, relationships are shaped between a teacher and the student. And to the student, grades signal the end of the learning process. As students so often say - 'Whew! Glad that class is over!"

Ultimately, the A-F grading system is inadequate because with it we judge fish by the way they climb trees. And since we have trained children to assess themselves by it, a system that was never intended to wield such power has robbed countless geniuses of their dreams.

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