27 Apr 2012

Learning without Perks or Punishments

Category: Alternative Education,Learning,Self-Directed LearningAdmin @ 11:53 pm

As humans, we are intrinsically motivated to learn. (Animals are, too, but their interests and priorities tend to be vastly different.) I am not saying that people necessarily want to learn what other people want to teach them but rather what they themselves find interesting or valuable.

If you have ever been interested in dance or other movement activities, and even if you have not, you have probably experimented with your own walk. Was it fun? Did you learn anything?

Now imagine being told that you will be graded on how well you walk across the room. Will you plan your walk or jump right up and start? Will you stay in your seat as long as possible? Will you watch to see how well your peers do? Will you become a more competent walker or merely a more self-conscious one?

Next imagine that you are learning a new dance step. Will you be more comfortable with constructive feedback if you know that you will or will not be graded as you are learning? And if you must be graded, would you rather be tested when you decide you are ready or when the teacher decides to grade everyone?

I recently came across Alfie Kohn’s moving article, “The Case Against Grades” (originally published in Educational Leadership1 and now also available in a slightly expanded version at Mr. Kohn’s website.2)

Included among a number of excellent points is this paragraph, which is sufficient by itself to question all rationale for grades:

Motivation: While it’s true that many students, after a few years of traditional schooling, could be described as motivated by grades, what counts is the nature of their motivation. Extrinsic motivation, which includes a desire to get better grades, is not only different from, but often undermines, intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn for its own sake (Kohn 1999a). Many assessment specialists talk about motivation as though it were a single entity — and their recommended practices just put a finer gloss on a system of rewards and punishments that leads students to chase marks and become less interested in the learning itself. If nourishing their desire to learn is a primary goal for us, then grading is problematic by its very nature.

Need I say more? Mr. Kohn has a lot more to say, and it is well worth the read. Click the link to his site to read it all: “The Case Against Grades,” by Alfie Kohn.


1Alfie Kohn: “The Case Against Grades,” Educational Leadership 69.3 (November 2011):28-33, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov11/vol69/num03/The-Case-Against-Grades.aspx

2Alfie Kohn: “The Case Against Grades,” http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm

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