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what about grades

as posted on the faq on be you.

what about grades

We hope this clears up some assumptions about grades….

Above is James Bach‘s highschool transcript. (Read more in his book Buccaneer-Scholar.)
Here’s how his book reads on the pages describing his grades (This is a lot  – James gave me permission to pirate this .):
As you can see, I dropped out of high school. My transcript may look a bit strange. I liked math. My mother talked the school into letting me take geometry and trigonometry in ninth grade. I didn’t receive grades for these classes, thought, because instead of taking the final exams, I went to the University of Vermont to take a summer calculus course.
My ninth-grade math teacher was furious that I missed his exams. I couldn’t take him seriously. The point is learning, right? Not grades. By that time I had contempt for grades. To me, the public school grading system seemed fraudulent and ignorant. I felt this way because I often received good grades I knew I hadn’t earned, while some of my worst grades were for subjects in which I excelled.
See that 94 in nith-grade science? I barely attended that class. Most days, I skipped it and played in the computer lab instead. I went to science class each Friday to take the test, which was a weak mix of vocabulary words and multiple-choice questions about basic facts of nature. Even thought I turned in no homework, passing such tests was apparently enough to get a good grade.
See that 49 in tenth-grade physics? Looks like a low score, doesn’t it? But I loved physics. I studied it at home. I made drawings of spaceships and calculated how fast they could go and how long it would take them to reach Alpha Centauri. I taught myself to use a sliderule and calculated trajectories of rockets that put space stations into orbit, the centrifugal forces on those space stations and the energy of meteoroids that might strike them in orbit.
But none of that was part of my schoolwork. So it didn’t count. Instead, physics in my school was a process designed to minimize the probability that any student would fail physics class. This was accomplished by emptying physics of much of its content. The subject was changed from an exploration of the patterns of the universe into a ritual of simple observations and simple calculations.
The problem was the labs. We were supposed to do them each week. A “lab” was a set of instructions in a book and blanks to fill in. These were turned in to the teacher, so that he could check that the blanks were filled with the expected numbers. Example: “The ball rolled 1 meter in ___ seconds when released on the 10 degree plane.”
These labs were represented to us as “experiments,” but there was no inquiry in them. They were just rituals for getting a grade. In practice, a few students performed the ritual to obtain the magic numbers; the rest copied the numbers into their own workbooks.
For me, the labs turned physics into a sham. I was told I would not pass the class unless I turned in my completed workbook. Instead, I turned in nothing. My workbook remained empty the whole year, I failed physics, but to this day I feel good that I took a stand for ethics in education.
At the end of tenth grade, a year after I skipped the math exams, my geometry and trigonometry teacher suddenly reappeared. The man was still angry with me for missing his pointless tests. He forced me to go into a room where the same exams were being held and said I had to take them. I didn’t care about the grade, but math is fun, so I went along. That’s why my Math 10 and Math 11 scores show up in tenth grade instead of ninth.
So you see. There are a lot of numbers on my high school transcript. The numbers look plain and clear, but the story behind them is nothing of the kind. Schools can’t track or describe students like me in meaningful terms. High numbers don’t represent good learning; low numbers don’t represent bad. The result is a nonsensical record from which little of value can be inferred.
We can’t know from looking at any report card or transcript how well or poorly a student is doing at school. These records don’t even tell us how well a student “plays the game” of school because a teacher may decide to pass an otherwise failing student for the sake of mercy, decorum, or administrative pressure. The system is a mess.
I have no “General Equivalency Diploma.” I have no other college credit. I have no certifications other than a driver’s license, a student’s pilot’s license, and open water driver rating, and a Level I paraglider pilot license.
If you measure people by paper credentials, you would be comfortable ignoring me. By that measure, I’m the Invisible Man.

.for more on grades – check out @joe_bower ‘s insight ..
and how we think we should be helping people determine authentic value.
another post on Buccaneer-Scholar

About monika hardy

a nother way


15 thoughts on “what about grades

  1. Great story, I’m glad you shared it and the author of it took the time to talk about the grades. I remember a 77 I got in high school physics in year 11 because I wasn’t as attractive as the “A” students (and only a certain number of students were “allowed” to get an A). Seriously, I’m not kidding. I also remember an84 I received in English 12 despite achieving an 88 on the standardized provincial exam. The teacher’s excuse? I used too many simple and plain words and refused to use a thesaurus to look up more complicated words to use.

    I suppose we all have stories about the grades we’ve received.

    Posted by dwees | July 28, 2010, 5:18 pm
  2. yeah.. i like Gregory and John’s idea of telling stories. i think stories are the heart of a movement.

    when i read that bit above in Jame’s book – i cried. when he says, i love physics.


    i’m so excited that we are on our way to doing better for kids.. you?

    Posted by monika hardy | July 28, 2010, 5:23 pm
  3. This is an awesome report about grades. But as a teacher and a former member of the business community, I need to ask…what if your employer gave you an assignment to do and you went off and did other things that interested you instead of what your boss wanted? A part of being a student is learning and I love your enthusiasm – wow – to have more like you! But also, it’s learning to follow direction even when you don’t feel like it. There has to be a solution between the two.

    Posted by Susan | July 28, 2010, 10:18 pm
  4. thank you Susan.. this is a tricky subject… that requires keen attention to what each of us really means. i would even say it’s the very heart of the matter.

    this is my current opinion from all the research i’ve been doing, and all the unlearning i’ve been doing. i know i need to learn more… just saying – i’m hoping not to offend anyone in my ignorance. and in my misunderstanding of what you are saying.

    what if that happens – your boss gives you something you don’t want to do?..

    that little scenario is probably where the beginning of my research started.. because so many people (all ages) that i loved, all around me, were stressed. too much to do.. too little time… etc… not doing things they value.

    i understand respect… and i believe in hard work -… and that sometimes we aren’t loving that hard work in the moment. i’m not talking – and i don’t believe James is – about just going off to be self-indulgent or because of a lazy whim, or even because something else currently caught your attention.

    that being said..
    what if that happens – your boss gives you something you don’t want to do?..
    maybe you’re working for the wrong company… for the wrong employer… maybe you’re working for instead of with..

    some (most) people will always want to follow directions… they will always want a map. i wish they wouldn’t. i wish they would give risk a go… it’s exhilarating to be yourself.
    some people currently have no other choice. it’s the job they have.. and they have to provide for their family. i get that… i’m not trying to devalue that in the least.

    if i’m in ed… i’m part of the beginnings of this whole adventure for kids – called life. i want them understanding the ethics, the civic value, the freedom, they have – to be themselves. i want them believing they can be whatever they want to be. i want them to do hard work… but i want them to crave it.. because it feeds their passion – not because it’s what we’re supposed to do.

    just for this reason alone – so that they won’t be going to a job everyday and not loving it.

    i don’t want to set kids up for that.
    i think grades, standardized tests, curriculum, .. are all things that feed that mentality to kids. you want to be good – follow these rules, make the a.

    and i don’t believe, if a passion is truly found… that a person can be selfish or lazy about it. Seth Godin says that if it’s your art (passion) you would do almost anything to give it away.

    i don’t think we’ve had the means before web access to personalize learning for every kid per their passion. so – it’s not like we’ve been doing things wrong. it’s just that now there is a better way.

    the cool thing is… it’s going to make a better world.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 29, 2010, 1:26 pm
  5. I just read a book that I think really speaks to this issue — Drive by Daniel H. Pink. His book turns the conventional concept of motivation (carrots and sticks to force compliance with drudgery) on its head in an attempt to find the optimum conditions for engagement, backing it up with science. His conclusions are that the three things that really create motivation to engage (in tasks other than pure rote repetition of steps) are a feeling of autonomy, the chance to work toward mastery, and a sense of purpose. What he found was that the carrot and stick version of motivation might work short-term, but was counter-productive in the bigger picture — that it actually produced less motivation and engagement rather than more.

    His book is directed more toward the business world — and he gives some real world examples of how some businesses are trending in this direction and being more productive as a result — but it definitely has applications to the education world as well. Susan, I’ve struggled with the “but aren’t we trying to teach them to follow directions, exhibit self-discipline, be ready for the real world of work” issue, too. But it’s not about just going off and doing what you want to instead of what you’re supposed to — it’s about doing what you need to, in a way that you can, for a real reason, and learning to find that in your work.

    This is a phenomenon we can all verify from personal experience in the classroom. Tell a kid he has to read a certain book (or else) and he will immediately hate it, no matter how you sugar-coat it. (You would, too.) If he cares enough about grades/points, he might comply, or at least give the appearance of complying, but only in the most superficial and grudging of ways, with no real engagement or learning taking place, no matter how many shiny stars you offer or how entertaining you try to make it or how much you build his self-esteem. Meanwhile, all the time he’s pretending to slog through the required reading and complaining every step of the way, he’s devouring a book three times longer and a little beyond his reading level with enthusiasm because it’s his choice, he loves the challenge, and it means something real to him. How to harness that engagement in a direction that will expose him to something valuable that he might not otherwise ever encounter?

    If you just let the kid read whatever he wants, sure, he would be engaged and there would be value in it, but would he ever choose, or even be aware of the option, that great work of literature that is a required part of your curriculum? What do you when he has to read that book that is on the curriculum? Well, first, YOU need to question if it’s worth reading for any valid reason beyond “it’s the curriculum”, and ensure that it is. Then, offer the kid some autonomy, if not in what he reads, in how or where or when or why. Ensure that he can work toward mastery of the book without his “mistakes” being penalized — instead, celebrate them as the natural signposts of learning. Frame the reading of the book in such a way that it has a real purpose instead of just a “school” purpose — that reading the book is necessary to achieving some understanding or solving a problem that has real meaning. Then get out of the way.

    Posted by Anne Kemp | July 30, 2010, 8:08 am
  6. What if your boss asked you to do something you didn’t want to do, and you could do something not just different but better, or do it in a way that was better, for both of you, for your greater purpose, for your “clientele”, for the world? Is your best response to comply or to engage?

    I would argue that we’re better preparing our students for the “real” world by helping them learn how to engage effectively rather than how to comply blindly.

    Posted by Anne Kemp | July 30, 2010, 9:17 am
  7. Thank you Anne and Monika for these thoughtful comments.

    Here is a link to Dan Pink’s video on TED that provides a taste of what he’s talking about in his book.

    When I watched this I found a real relationship to issues in the school around classroom rewards and motivation, although he is mainly focused on the business end of things. Yes, if you want deep thought on a project from kids, you don’t offer them a reward designed for a simple-minded task. Yet teachers do that all the time.

    Trust in kids is a big issue here. As Pink says, one day at Google, employees get to work on whatever they want to. If a project has been brewing in the back of their brains, now is their chance to work on it. They have to be there, from 9-5, say, and they have to be working (these parameters exist), but the choice of work is up to them. He says that software has been developed that never would have existed if it weren’t for this type of structure. What brilliance are we missing (or not even giving time to develop) from our kids since if we don’t allow them this time?

    We don’t design schools to accomodate this type of structure. I feel like many teachers would be uncomfortable with the idea of time in the school day that was unscripted. We schedule every minute of kids’ days because if there is lag time a behavior issue might arise, or a student might stray into their own thinking. Risky stuff. Off-task behavior is scary. But what is REALLY scary here? I find Pink’s work, as usual, very applicable to what we do in schools.

    Posted by Jennifer Groves | July 30, 2010, 11:31 am
  8. Hi Susan,

    I’m happy to answer your question:

    You wrote: “what if your employer gave you an assignment to do and you went off and did other things that interested you instead of what your boss wanted?”

    Actually, I used to do that at every job I ever had. And I do it now that I run my own company. I also encouraged people who work for me to do it. What’s important here is to understand the nuances, though, not the headline.

    I enter into a contract with my employer (we all do). I agree to provide certain services in exchange for payment. But when that job involves a high degree of judgment in dealing with open ended problems, which is the case in consulting and many areas of the computing world (also law, medicine, construction, etc.), then the link between what my employer wants/expects and what I actually do is a dynamic and shifting thing. I negotiate that continuously.

    This was true when I made $3.50/hr at Walker’s Office Supply, and it’s true when I make $375/hr as an expert witness on a court case.

    In my book, I explain how that works. But it’s basically like this: I enter into a broad agreement with my employer over what I will do, and then I negotiate the details separately for each specific task. Over time, expectations are formed and we follow the pattern of those expectations instead of negotiating each detail. If I’m going to do something that violates expectations I either am prepared not to bill for that time (or to work extra to make up for it if I’m a full time employee), or I convince my customer that he would rather have what I gave him than what he asked for. If I chronically won’t fulfill expectations, I must resign or be fired.

    It’s really quite simple.

    The core problem with school is that there is no contract: it’s a master/slave relationship. This is corrosive to a free society and we should not permit it. I do not have a master/slave relationship with my wife or son. I enter into agreements with them without dictating to them. My wife and son don’t receive grades from me, and I don’t receive grades from them.

    You wrote: “A part of being a student is learning and I love your enthusiasm – wow – to have more like you! But also, it’s learning to follow direction even when you don’t feel like it. There has to be a solution between the two.”

    I can’t disagree with you more. There is no need to “learn” how to follow direction even when you don’t feel like it. THAT IS NOT A SKILL. A dog can do that. A slave can do that. Anyone can do that. That’s not a matter of learning: just enslavement. Perhaps you think that work life is a form of self-enslavement where we whip ourselves into going to work that we hate, each day. I don’t do that. Why would anyone do that? Just quit that job! If you feel you can’t quit your job, then your life project becomes becoming ABLE to quit that sucky terrible job, ASAP.

    If I follow direction it’s because I have agreed to do it and I decide to abide by the agreement instead of renegotiating or breaking it (and accepting the consequences). In my work life, I have broken and renegotiated agreements. So have I also in my private life. We don’t need to learn how to keep an agreement. We need to learn how to make agreements (so we don’t make agreements we can’t/won’t keep) and change agreements (so if we can’t keep the agreement we get out of it). Neither of those latter skills are taught in school to any degree that I recall. But they are necessary to a productive life.

    Posted by James Bach | August 1, 2010, 11:52 pm
    • thank you James.

      i’m 2/3 way through Buccanner-Scholar. we’ve added it to our suggested books to read at b&n. i highly, highly recommend you read it.

      it’s key to what we’re doing with the participatory action research. it’s like – par is the way to go… dang – James already has it down.

      you will be reformed when you read his book – because it’s all about – being you.

      Posted by monika hardy | August 2, 2010, 9:11 am
  9. How do we solve this? Following directions?

    Student in charge of his/her own learning. Why this notion is so hard, I will never understand. Learning isn’t about following directions, but instead, creating a pathway for yourself, to reach new understanding and to critically engage with information you had previously been unfamiliar with.

    Teachers are not the boss, instead they are/should be, the facilitator of the classroom. An individual who fosters and encourages students to reach, explore, create, innovate, challenge and provke themselves. Facilitation is much different then instructor.

    Why can’t we have the faith in the student themselves? Surely, James would have been absolutely fine, if we would have had faith in him.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | August 11, 2010, 3:07 am
  10. This is a great conversation. This is it. This is the reform debate. Do we measure how well students do what we tell them to do using old tools to gauge what they remember about old knowledge, or do we find new ways to measure what students discover when given access to information as a means, rather than as an end, of learning?

    I’m almost willing to posit that a standardized test is effective to measure what it measures (just kidding), but what we measure as a system is bunk. A high-school trained archaeologist wouldn’t ever dig. I apologize if that comment seems brusque – several teachers provide incredible authentic learning experiences for kids in public schools – however, the system doesn’t.

    When we say don’t listen to us, listen to Science – or the Canon – we’re subbing one gatekeeper as proxy for another. We are gate-keeping learning. We are saying, no kids, you can’t go outside to play in the backyard, but look at all the name-brand toys we have here inside.

    Either classrooms start looking like backyards or we let kids out and follow them instead of pacing guides, or, really, we take a long, hard look at what teaching and what it merits.

    I say we let kids go and follow them and their learning. Kids will come back to us with questions about content, thinking, and ethics. Kids will value our relationships and networks more than our textbooks and rows of desks. They will show us new resources for learning.

    Anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that if we keep grading vocab quizzes about things at the beach, but never look at the kids’ sandcastles, then we’re the ones who are missing something, the ones failing.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 11, 2010, 7:36 pm


  1. Pingback: On grades « Simon Kidd - August 11, 2010

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