How To Get Students to Stop Asking: ‘Is This for a Grade?’

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“Test scores and measures of achievement tell you where a student is, but they don’t tell you where a student could end up.” –Carol Dweck

Am I the only one who cringes when a student asks, “Is this for a grade?” I don’t think it’s not their fault. We have built a system where kids are constantly being evaluated, rewarded, and punished for what they are able to regurgitate. In most schools, students would prefer to show you what they already know than to try to learn something new in which they might fail.

I think that Carol Dweck’s spectacular book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance should be required reading for everyone who teaches children. Dweck asserts that to help students reach their potential we have to praise effort and progress, not necessarily the outcome or a persons’ innate intelligence. Being “smart” was never my label; I have had to work for every ounce of knowledge I possess which is why I now quantify myself as a “learner” instead of as “intelligent.” For me, it is the act of learning and not the outcome of what has been learned that inspires my insatiable curiosity.

My sense of self is not built around something as fragile as “smart” because there will always be someone smarter than me. If I bought into that label, it might limit my ability to risk looking stupid in order to learn something. When we praise a child for being “smart,” they become enmeshed in that identity and will protect that label even if it means they have to cheat or select a less challenging problem.

So, how do we praise effectively? We would be better served by acknowledging their hard work, the colors they used, or how much effort they extolled in order to produce a particular project than to say “Oh, that’s amazing!” What kind of feedback is it to tell someone that they’ve done a “good job?” Give concrete, actionable, and specific feedback in order to allow the person to replicate the experience. By saying, “Wow, I can tell you’ve been practicing” you are praising the process of learning which creates the desire for more learning instead of seeking a grade or a specific outcome.

Our kids need to understand that they will not get everything right the first time and the things that matter most in life won’t be labeled with a letter grade.  It is important that we teach parents that their children will need to have the freedom to try hard things on their own because that is the only way they will ever make progress. Our fear of failure and desire for perfection can be paralyzing.  We can become completely irrational and want to quit (or not start), even when we know that quitting is taking us further away from our long-term goals.  I believe that we are all capable of getting better because failure is only permanent if we quit trying.

I wonder, what would the world look like if we let kids select what they want to learn and didn’t give them a grade for what they produced?