How to Amputate a Student's Love for Learning

Teachers say they want willing students. We say we want students who love learning. We say that we want to develop life-long learners. But we might be perpetuating the very culture we seek to oppose. Even worse, we are possibly conditioning parents to do the same.

In one of my discussion forums, a parent shared what had recently occurred at his daughter’s school.

          I am a 10-years-old girl's dad. Let me tell a story about my daughter.

          One day, when my daughter came back home from school, I found she was sad. She told me that she
          got 87 (of 100) score in her mathematics test. I tried to comfort her and said that her score was 
          pretty good. She just needed to learn how to double-check her answers. But my words didn't make
          her happy. The reason was that the average score of her classmates' was 95. After my daughter told
          me that reason, I could say nothing.

          At that moment, I was angry about her teacher telling her the average score of the class.

          But on the other hand, I also knew that her teacher just wanted my daughter to feel pressure, in order
          to make her study harder.

The reliability of such a test was the first thing that caught my attention.  A class of 10 year-olds with an average score of 95 on a test suggests there is (potentially) an issue with the test. Statistically, things don't usually work that way.

Cohen and Spenciner (2007) concur:  “When there is little variability among test scores, the reliability will be low. Thus, reliability will be low if a test is so easy that every student gets most or all of the items correct or so difficult that every student gets most or all of the items wrong” (p. 43). Thus, the reliability is suspect, which is issue enough, but why would a teacher make the statement to the class?

What is our motivation for sharing a class average score with the class? Whom does it serve?

I’m not one of those individuals who thinks that everyone should get a ribbon just for participating—I believe those who excel should be praised. However, in this instance, the statement seems superfluous, purposefully used as a means of criticism for those students who did not make the average. More to the point, it over-emphasizes grades and puts the score over the individual student.

A class average on a test is information to drive further instruction. It is not a point of comparison for an individual student in a fourth grade class. That’s too young, too early, too cold, too sterile—pedagogical stainless steel forceps when what is called for is dialogic stained glass.

The parent continued:
                I was also astonished when I saw the statistic of [the] students’ scores.

                I agree with my daughter's teacher's words: What is important to my daughter is to learn how to
                be self-motivated when she is studying something. 

This is a serious misconstruction of the concept of self-motivation on both parts. If the goal for this student’s studying is to “get a good grade,” then congratulations. At the tender age of 10, we have successfully amputated her love for learning. We've also applied a tourniquet of extrinsic motivation, sopped with an elixir of entitlement.

Most likely, the parent and the teacher were themselves part of a culture that perceived “good” grades as the primary objective of school. As a product of a 70s/80s public school education, I had a little experience with that. Unless we move past this outmoded thinking, we will not create the dynamic leap in thinking that we seek, and I put the onus on teachers.

Grades exist, for better or worse. But we do not have to put them on a pedestal.  Rather, let us use them for our purposes of reteaching, redirecting, or determining authentically challenging next steps, designed to build upon the mastery demonstrated.

We must actively strive to ensure that we cultivate learning environments, not grading venues. If we truly desire students who are intrinsically motivated to learn, then we cannot use grades as motivation.  

Cohen, L.G., & Spenciner, L. J. (2007) Assessment of children and youth with special needs. New Jersey: Pearson Education.


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