Whats more important grades or learning?

Have you ever asked a classroom full of students the following question: Would you rather get an A in a class and learn very little or get a C in a class and learn more than you have in any other class? When I was a classroom teacher I asked this question to every class every year and the results were horrifying. As someone who places learning first and sees the schools as a place of learning why would that not be the primary focus of everyone who walks through the door? But our grade obsessed culture has put learning in the back seat and its easy to see why students would want a higher gpa than overall knowledge base. After all, gpa is the major influence on everything from scholarships, to class rank, to college entrance. Sure there are other factors to most of these things but GPA is an easy to to separate students so its the one we use. But if we are really wanting to prepare students for the “real world” we need to find a way to put the focus back on learning. The people who have learned and are constantly learning will pass up those with higher GPA’s very quickly when they hit the work world, believe me I am a prime example.

I have to admit I never got straight A’s until one intense summer school session during graduate school, by that time I was 30, married, and had two kids and probably had my priorities in order a little better than when I was completing my undergrad. I don’t think I ranked in the top 100 in my graduating class in high school and there were plenty of people who didn’t see me having multiple college degrees in the future. Many of my grades where influenced by behavior, I didn’t always get work done on time or follow all directions, I was the kid who turned in a paper hand written when it was supposed to be typed, I remember one case where this turned a 95% into a 70% because apparently 25% of the learning for this paper was based solely on typing it. These actions often left me with B’s and the occasional C. But my advantage was, and still is, that I am always learning. The classes I got C’s in during college were often the ones I learned the most in, I got a C on a project that I have turned into multiple promotions. I learned a lot during the project and turned the feedback into more learning, and I continued progressing the project as the class moved on to the next one.

This brings me back to my original question, whats more important grades or learning? We would like to think that they are the same thing but so often they aren’t. We have instilled the mindset in students that the most important thing in school is the grade. This leads students to approach school in a few different ways. Many students become work averse, they drop the challenging class in favor of ones the perceive as easier, they use cliffnotes to skim basic information designed to help improve their test grades, they copy from friends, they plagiarize, etc. All of these are designed to keep the grade at the expense of learning. Many students become good at playing the game of school, displaying the correct behaviors during class and turning in homework but blaming poor test grades on the fact that they are “not a good test taker” when in fact they have displayed all the behaviors I just listed to in order to keep their grades up. I believe test anxiety is a real thing and there are kids who struggle with tests that do know the materials but its not the number who use this as their excuse.

We have built a culture of students who also believe  that being smart is an innate characteristic and appearing smart is more important than being a learned individual. This is where we have to get students, teachers, parents, coaches, and everyone involved with students moving to a growth mindset. Understanding the concept that intelligence is flexible and not fixed is key to in this process of moving students towards being learners and not grade getters. Go back and watch the video I posted from Carol Dweck and dive into the idea of growth mindset. Dig into the video by John Green and see how powerful learning really is. These are topics and ideas I have been investing my time and research into as I research how we can better serve our students. I have also been reading a lot of Thomas Guskey, Rick Wormelli, and Douglas Reeves and their work on standards based grading, removing zeros from the gradebook, ending averages, and using more professional judgements when determining the “grades” we are giving students. I don’t have an answer to solving this problem we have created in education, and its not a new one, but I am working on helping to find the solution. I hope to continue reading and learning from others as we progress into a society that values learning above grading.


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