Grades are punishment. Discuss.

Sometimes it’s nice to be given the keys to the car; you get to do what you want.  you can do things like pull out interesting comments and put them up for discussion.  (Of course, that’s not usually Joanne’s style so she might not appreciate my doing this…)  Here’s Mark Barnes’ latest comment from the comments to my recent post on computer essay scoring.

Grades are a punishment, because they are subjective, judgmental and provide no useful feedback for students. There’s much more to it, but I’m not sure this is the thread for it.

So given that that post wasn’t the place for a more in-depth discussion about this issue.  I propose that this post is.  He’s right: there is much more to it, which you can (and should) read about here.  Here’s Mark’s list of reasons he doesn’t given grades, without the more detailed explanations:

5 — Grades are always subjective.

4 — A points and percentages system discriminates.

3 — Poor weighting of activities punishes some students while rewarding others.

2 — Grades turn even honest kids into cheaters.

1 — When students perform for points or letters, they lose any interest in real learning.

I think he’s terribly mistaken, but I also think this is an important conversation worth having.  For my part, I’ll rattle off some very brief, glib responses and then make way for all of you (I may have more to say in the comments).

I think that #5 is pretty obviously false, and that it’s not necessarily a terrible thing even if it’s true.   #4 is true; but it might be a feature, not a bug.  #3 is an argument against poor weighting, not against grades.  #2 is, I think, false.  It’s easy to seem “honest” when there’s nothing at stake.  Honesty’s about what you do when it matters.

#1, I think, is the one real, substantive point that Barnes has, though I think it’s at once overstated (they probably lose “much”, not “any” interest).  But it’s also possible that it’s operating on some wrong assumptions, too.  Part of the reason I think schools need the carrot and the stick is because what the schools are promoting is not “real learning.”   It’s quite often disembodied, inert knowledge designed not to teach any sort of useful skill, but to inculcate a certain type of worldview, or mimic the sorts of mental processes of a certain type of person.  There isn’t any interest there to begin with, so it would be false to think that the grades destroy that interest.