November 13, 2011

The future belongs to those who can see past the number...

Deirdre Bailey

Report cards equal debate. So should anything that requires reflecting hundreds of hours worth of conversation, research, invention and developing ability in a number. Imagine asking a parent to describe (or rate?) their child with one number. Wouldn't it depend on the day?... On their activity? On their level of interest? On the task and their experience with it? I can't convince myself that a parent who has watched their child grow, smile, learn to crawl and speak for the first time, wants their ability or potential to be reduced to a single number... To what end?

Who then, is the number for? The child? Is it intended to motivate them? To reward them? To "prepare them for the future?" Daniel Pink suggests in his latest book, Drive, that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay adults enough to "take if off of the table" as an issue. For children, school grades are what come in life before money. Historically and theoretically, they serve the same purpose. But do we honestly believe that we can motivate students by assigning them a number every 3 months? "You're a 3 Billy... but with more work, you could be a 4." Does 13 year old Billy honestly care if he's a 4? Is he genuinely likely to engage more in learning for a 4 on the piece of paper we hand him in January? More likely to discover his passion? To create? To understand even? Recent research and innovation in the business world increasingly suggest that when tasks require creative conceptual thinking, rewards don't work. Sure, if you give a group of people an algorithm to apply and a bonus for speed, bonuses will make a difference, but not if we're looking for innovation or invention. Would we rather our children apply procedural knowledge with speed, or think deeply and redefine conventional assumptions? We have all had goosebumps listening to someone sing, reading an incredible novel or watching an extraordinarily skilled athlete perform? Do we honestly believe that their success was a direct result of, motivated or inspired by a quantitative assessment?

Arguably, sport is an industry in which we are on the cutting edge of "producing results" and "achieving success." In fact, spend twenty minutes listening to highlights and analysis on a Sunday afternoon football post game show and you'll be amazed at how many synonyms for results and success you'll hear.  Athletics is as outcome-oriented as our society can get: you win or you don't. You do not get a special mention for hard work: "second place = first loser." Yet, four-time Olympic speed-skating medalist Kristina Groves was interviewed by Duff Gibson on her evolving motivation and what ultimately resulted in her first world championship, and she specifically identifies the turning point in her career as the moment where she stopped identifying 'the number beside her name' as an evaluation of her achievement. She includes the observation:

"The funny thing about it... is that I can remember standing on the podium and not giving a crap about the medal. I can, to this day, tell you exactly how I felt in that race. And that, was when I was like 'Oh my God I hit that feeling!' That's what I want in my races, and that's what leads to good performance." 
(3.48 min)

In his TED talk, Daniel Pink offers a perfect analogy on how we might motivate adults in the workforce. We can either approach them with "If you do something cool... I'll give you $2,500," or we can try "you probably want to do something cool, let me just get out of your way." The latter capitalizes on what we are coming to understand about education in so many ways. First, we assume that kids will do well if they can. Second, we understand that providing them with some autonomy to undertake self-directed learning is of key importance in constructing an engaging learning space.

The revolution in education is slowly recognizing that cultivating 21st century thinkers leaves no space for assigning kids numbers as a way of assessing or improving their learning process. It will no doubt prove challenging to convince present social bureaucracy that numeric data will provide little to no help in painting a clear picture of what our future citizens are capable of - this system has been privileged for years. It will be infinitely more time consuming to rely on conversation and interaction to convey student success and needs, however, there is no way that numbers can, in any case, give us the complete picture. We need a future in which people do not associate success or achievement with a quantitative figure but engage in conversation, debate and collaboration about their growth through the process of learning. It is the only way to build the best version of a better world.


  1. Reflecting on why we report is always interesting. We run that line of cognitive dissonance where we would love to just get rid of grades but tradition bogs us down with the need to report a number or a percentage. Parents seem dependent on that somehow, and yet all it does is serve as a way to rank and file kids in a way that is very unfair to them. I've always felt that grades serves two purposes: to reward, and to punish. But not to motivate. It's that same case of, the rich get richer? Well those who get good grades continue to get good grades no matter what we do really. Those who get poor grades are very rarely motivated to do anything to better them. They feel as though they've been kicked and they should just stay down or they risk getting kicked again (figuratively speaking of course). The only kids who get a bad grade and use that as motivation are the kids who could have had the good grade but for some reason didn't this round.

    Although a report card of feedback only would definitely involve far more work (talk to elementary teachers who give mostly feedback based report cards) the information is far more valuable.

    Right now I'm kicking out report cards even though I've really only had my kids for about two months. They are still very much in the "learning" phase of the year and I'm being asked to slot that into a number from 1 - 4. And what kills me is that I have to be honest with them, and some of them are going to take one look at their report card and I will have lost any chance I had with them this year. I don't know if I'll ever be able to get them back. If we have to give out report cards, I think they should be outlawed until at least January. But that's just my opinion.....

  2. Thanks a million for the reply! I had been overlooking the reward/punishment aspect of grades. Now I might feel even worse about their part in the learning process. These kids have been so fantastic in so many ways, I wish they could all be only rewarded, even if there's still a ways to go. Our school has a heavy comments section which I love but the number grades at the top are often the only thing that I think either parents or kids consider. I have wished so much that we could leave them blank and felt a little ill watching some of the kids' facial expressions as they looked at their grades, regardless of the fact that if I'd asked them, they'd have already identified the areas in which they thought they could improve. Your blog has been brilliant food for thought. Thank you again for sharing your ideas!