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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Collateral Damage

A hammer is good for hammering nails. It doesn’t contribute much to changing a bicycle tire.

I’ve just re-read ‘The Conversation’ between my friend John Gulla and Rand Harrington, published in the Spring 2018 issue of Independent School magazine. They debate the merits of grades versus the Mastery Transcript model (spoiler alert: I like the Mastery Transcript model). The argument in favour of grades seems to lean heavily on the notion that, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. This would suggest that the absence of a ‘grade’ necessarily reflects the absence of measure.

I don’t agree. In part, we’re talking here about how we measure, but there’s more to it than just replacing letters and numbers with another rubric. We’ve also got to be sure that we’re measuring the right thing. Let me be clear – I’m a big fan of numbers. We’ve just published the results from a Community and Belonging survey of 22,297 students at 96 schools, involving 1,000,000 numbers… and that was just their answers. There were many more millions of numbers uncovered in the dissection of results, along with the 25,000 word interpretive analysis that followed. Pages of data, reports, and graphs number in the thousands. A key distinction is captured in the purpose for this survey. The hope (for John Gulla, Steve Piltch, and yours truly), in the simplest of terms, was to quantify feelings and to measure connections between feelings and student outcomes. Now, that’s a loaded statement, isn’t it? What feelings? What outcomes? See the results for yourself.

But I digress.

Are grades foundational to education? I think not. Education has been around for millennia, since long before grades were applied. Grades are directly derivative of the 1830s farm-to-factory model of education. Grades are the default unit of measure, a mere convenience in the absence of a ‘better tool’. In a new age of high volume compulsory education, grades were introduced as a filter for streaming students into higher education… or not into higher education.

For whom were grades created? The student? The school? The employer? The economy at large? Grades are a tool of gatekeepers in the service of a larger system. Okay, so that’s the system and we have to work within the system, right? Tell that to Bill Gates. Tell that to Steve Jobs. Tell that to Albert Einstein who, along with others, is reported to have said, “Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Clearly, in our current system of education, grades are important, but are they right?

As an aside: While we focus our efforts on measuring the ‘right answers’ from students, I wonder if we’ve got it backwards. In my experience, the right answers are easy to find if you’ve asked the right questions. The best of leaders know how to ask the right questions. Perhaps we should be rewarding students based on the quality of their questions.

But, again, I digress.

Preparing our children for compliant, repetitive factory work seems a bit outdated, so I feel compelled to clear the drawing board completely and ask, ‘what is the purpose for education?’ Is it to get into the right college or university? Is it to get a good job? Is it to earn a high income? Perhaps more to the point, whatever purpose you assign to education, how do you best measure progress along this journey? While all of these objectives may rightfully fit in the picture you’ve painted for your child, it is my contention that they are not only not complete. In the absence of a full picture for purpose in education, their over-representation in this picture creates both a diminishing and a negative return.

Thirty-five years ago, as a first-time homeowner, I bought a bag of grass fertilizer and applied it to the lawn. It worked well, so I did it again a week later. The lawn came up even greener, so I did it again the following week. As you will correctly guess, the lawn turned yellow. Diminishing and negative returns.

In our recent Community and Belonging Survey, as but one example, we identified clear diminishing and negative returns from time spent on homework. Little time spent daily on homework (less than one hour) brings with it low measure on a number of fronts, likely reflecting a lack of engagement. More than three hours spent daily on homework also brings with it low measure on a number of fronts, including:

  • general satisfaction

  • sense of belonging

  • emotional safety (in a big way)

  • feeling encouraged to express one’s opinion

  • feeling respected and valued (a critical component to virtually every other measure in our survey)

  • feeling treated as an individual

  • feeling supported

  • feeling encouraged in a love of learning (Ken Robinson was right!)

  • the presence of a trusted adult

  • preparedness for conducting oneself with confidence

  • preparedness for handling stressful situations

  • preparedness for making choices that support emotional well-being

  • and, of course, preparedness for organizing time effectively

So, when your teachers or parents say, “spend more time on homework and get better grades,” there’s got to be a limit to this framework of thinking (reference Clint Eastwood’s line near the end of Magnum Force). At some point, focus on grades will result in the same negative return as reflected in the bullet-list shown here.

While grades offer value as checkpoints, and they do, they also present drawbacks when we choose to measure only those things to which we can easily assign a number. If grades are all we have, or even most of what we have, are we deferring to the path of least resistance, all the while sacrificing valuable information, and our children, along the way? As I consider this dilemma, I’m inclined to see grades as no different from quality inspection on a production line. With a defined target for successful processing, we’ve created and assessed an acceptable level of failure. You cannot define success without defining failure.

Grades measure basic intellect, stamina, and discipline. This is a good thing.

Grades do not measure passion, curiosity, collaboration, innovation, values, many aspects of character, such as integrity and leadership. Not a good thing.

When we view schooling only as a feeder for employment, we devalue what I see as much more important purposes in education. Without reference to citizenship, to community and belonging, to finding and forging a place, and in turn, without reference to the social/emotional prerequisites for these life experiences, are we not sacrificing our children’s well-being, and in turn, the well-being of society at large?

In a system created and designed to allow cream to rise to the top, are we not doing irreparable harm to those who do not rise to the top? In the animal tree of education, those creatures who can climb rise. Those who cannot are filtered out. Lots of monkeys in the treetops, I should say. Can those animals that don’t climb also lead? Can non-climbers make a greater contribution than our current framework in education suggests? Where do character and values fit into the picture when climbing alone seems to be the most prominent element we value? Are we missing out on huge potential as a society by creating an education system that measures student performance in hopes to identify the top 1%, 5%, or 10% of climbers? I’m not talking about handing out participation medals here, rewards for just showing up. “Thanks for coming, now move to the side of the stage… right there, just behind the curtain.” What I am talking about is not sacrificing the overwhelming majority of students in an effort to separate and promote high climbers when climbing has repeatedly been shown to be so deficient. Look no further than who leads us today.

In my view, our over-reliance on grades, and climbing… has created immense collateral damage. Not only have young people with great potential been de-selected from streams of education and career paths in which they might very well have prospered. They’ve also been told, ‘you’re not worthy’. That’s just wrong on so many levels.

What’s worse, when we use grades as predictors for success – in education or career or life, generally, we’re making a huge mistake. Grades don’t predict success. Grades predict grades. Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter…

How do we define success? Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different answers. Here’s mine: discover what you love to do; become as good as you can at it; then, find someone crazy enough to pay you to do it. That’s just my definition of career success, mind you.

Human success, though, is much, much more. Be a net contributor to society. Be a participant in something larger than yourself. Make a difference, and in so doing, be fulfilled. Be happy. We are, first and foremost, social creatures. Any measure of success that does not take this social aspect of human existence into account is flawed at the core. Grades may offer useful checkpoints, but employed disproportionately as they are today, they may do more harm than good. Passion predicts success. Intellectual curiosity predicts success. Engagement predicts success. What’s more, I would contend that success in nurturing passion, curiosity, and engagement is directly linked to success in the more traditional measures, including grades. I would contend further that passion, curiosity, and engagement are all greatly enabled by feeling respected and by feeling emotionally safe. Where do these elements fit in the current model? What role do they play, other than as ancillary considerations? They’re not ALSO important. They’re FIRSTLY important. What’s that saying? First things first.

Sometimes, a hammer is not the right tool. Do we need a hammer? For now, it seems that, like fossil fuels, we do. This said, the price our children pay for this incomplete set of tools is far too high. I applaud all efforts to re-imagine what our toolbox should look like. If you’re not familiar with Scott Looney’s Mastery Transcript Consortium exploration on the subject, I would strongly encourage you to have a look.

With respect to carpenters, not everything is a nail.


Kevin Graham


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