There are two main reasons parents enroll their kids at Englist.
First, parents want their kids to get better grades in English classes and on writing assignments at school.
Second, parents hope to position students for admission to top-tier Western universities.
For both of these motivations, grades are the core consideration.
We get it; grades are important. Grades are the number one factor colleges look at on an application. Education culture, for as long as anyone can remember, has been built around completing assignments and taking tests, all to earn a high score. Then teachers take the average of a student’s scores and assign them a grade. That’s just how it has always worked, and how it always will work. Right?
Hopefully not, because there are some problems with the rat race of grades and scores. At Englist, we see kids who are staying up until midnight, 1 a.m., sometimes even 2 a.m. to review for exams or to finish homework and projects. They fall asleep in class, have a hard time focusing, and end up doing worse on assignments and tests.
We’ve seen students break into tears when they get lower scores than expected, or don’t “out-compete” their classmates. Other students around the world have developed serious mental health issues, even committing suicide, due to low scores or from the high pressure of testing. This is because, sadly, students derive much of their self-worth from their grades and scores.
Even worse, so do many parents, without even realizing they are giving or withholding affection and support due to grades. We see parents and students in near-permanent states of conflict: parents are disappointed and angry with their kids because of lower-than-expected grades, and students are upset and frustrated because their happiness and their relationships with parents are predicated on arbitrary metrics of academic achievement.
This is not how school or learning should be. Grades are bad.
Our experience with grades
In our classes, we used to score student written work. We stopped scoring assignments because the score was the only thing kids saw.
In our Fundamentals classes, teachers don’t grade most student work; instead teachers check assignments and offer specific feedback directly to the student. The only scores students receive are from vocabulary tests.
Nor do we assign letter grades or scores in our academic writing classes. Academic writing in a second language is profoundly difficult and it’s a testament to our students’ grit and patience that they can do it at all.
However, student essays can be riddled with mechanical errors, wobbly organization, and a lack of clarity. In the old days when we did grade student work, many kids would earn less than stellar grades, but would also get individual and specific feedback. That didn’t matter though; students only saw “low” scores and felt like they were failing. Many wanted to give up. Many got in trouble at home. We had meeting after meeting trying to explain that B’s and C’s were okay.
Then, we stopped grading student work.
How Englist assesses students
We have switched over to a system where students either complete the work according to instructions, or they don’t. Their “grade” over the course of a term is based on how many assignments a student satisfactorily completes, which means their grade is a measure of consistency and effort, not ability.
Furthermore, Englist does not offer any letter or number grade. In place of grades, our teachers offer feedback to students on assignments, assess students according to their work overall, and prepare reports and parent-teacher meetings. All reports are narrative-based and feature no scores beyond the number of completed assignments.
When we made this adjustment, classes changed for the better. Students liked class more. They were more interested in what they were learning rather than their scores. Students began to try new things even if they were difficult. Most importantly, students began to get better more quickly.
The main problem with grades
By this point you have probably figured out that grades are a problem for a bunch of reasons, from creating stress and conflict, to lowering self-esteem, to motivating students to avoid difficult work.
However, the core problem with grades and scoring is that they shift the focus of education from the learning process to the result.
Grades reduce school to a series of goal posts students need to reach before they can go on to the next step, and all steps must be completed before they are qualified to graduate, or get accepted to a university, or to get a good job someday. Instead of engaging in learning because it is interesting or useful in its own right, students “learn” just because it will get them to the next step.
Researchers call this extrinsic motivation, and the research shows it to be much less effective than intrinsic motivation, which means wanting to do something for its own sake. Ironically, top-tier universities are looking for students who are motivated by a passion for learning, not by those who are experts at getting good grades (although these two features frequently overlap).
Furthermore, this focus on grades has turned school into a competition-sustained chimera: more studying, more assignments, more work, more tests, more summatives, more projects, and to the survivors go the spoils. The problem with this monster of an education culture is that there are diminishing returns, and there is ample evidence that not only is it harmful, but students aren’t learning as much as if they had more time to slow down and were given some independence and freedom to explore.
We’ve already mentioned research a few times, but maybe you aren’t convinced. You might say, “Sure, but my student’s school uses grades, and colleges look at grades, so who are you to say grades are bad?”
We aren’t making it up. In his book Why They Can’t Write, college writing instructor and education expert John Warner tells a story: on the first day of the semester, Warner would ask his students which they would prefer, just getting an automatic “A” and not learn anything about writing, or do the work of learning. At least 60 percent of students said they would rather get an “A” and not learn anything.
Clearly, the result – the grade – has warped priorities for students and parents alike.
However, if you still aren’t convinced, here is an incomplete list of reasons grades are problematic, with links to further reading:
- Grades shift the focus of education from learning to getting high scores.
- Grades diminish student self-esteem and damage mental health.
- Grades kill passion for learning.
- Grades make students less smart.
- Grades don’t measure how capable students are, they measure how good students are at “doing school”.
- Grades lack nuance and are an inaccurate gauge of student ability.
- Grades promote arbitrary competition and diminish motivation for cooperation.
- Grades incentivize cheating.
- Grades reduce students to numbers.
- Grades confuse kids and send mixed messages.
- Grades are less effective than narrative feedback.
- Grades aren’t necessary for quality instruction.
How would a gradeless education system work?
That is a valid question, but not a difficult one to answer. The fact is, education does not require grades, scores, tests, and overwork. Teachers can still assess student ability and progress without slapping a grade or a number down to interfere with the process.
As a matter of fact, that’s how it worked for most of history. Aristotle never gave Alexander the Great a report card, nor did Confucius calculate the GPA of his students. Grades only became part of schooling with the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of compulsory education in the United States.
Instead, teachers can analyze student ability based on student work and even give formative assessments. They just don’t need to assign a grade.
Feedback can then come in the form of a narrative report – many schools and programs already offer narrative reports, with and without grades. From the teacher, students and parents hear specifics about what they need to work on and where they are succeeding. Then, when students are ready for the next level, teachers will just move them up to the next level. Just like we do at Englist.
In short, Englist teachers will not grade students. We also think parents should ask other schools to stop grading as well.
The thing is, lots of successful people got bad grades in school but remained creative, critical thinkers. Plenty of other people obsessed over their grades, were high achievers all through school, and now work in stressful, unrewarding, dead-end jobs. If that’s not an indicator that something is wrong with grading, we don’t know what is.
What the modern education culture is doing, by way of grades and scores, is turning students into very good office workers who will come in early, stay late, and do as they are told. Education in this format is not helping students to become deep thinkers, creative thinkers, or passionate learners.
At Englist, we strive to offer education that is valuable in and of itself. We read interesting books. We let students write about what they want to write about. We explore topics and update curricula every semester to better reach the students we have and to refine our process. And along the way, it just so happens that students develop the skills colleges are looking for, and they do better in their English classes at school. But that is not the focus here. The focus at Englist is the learning, the writing, and the thinking.