The Price of Learning: Gradecard Dilemma

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Aug 16, 2013

For most students in school, grades are very important. To many people, students and teachers and parents, grades are the most important acquisition in school. High scores and grades are constantly stressed, so much, in fact, that many students are punished when they do not do as well as expected. The punishment comes in the form of groundings, verbal reprimands, loss of privileges, and, ultimately, guilt. Parents and teachers feel that punishing students for poor grades would compel them to get better grades next time around.

The logic seems valid: if students are doing poorly in school, it is a reflection of them not learning; if they are punished for doing poorly, they will have incentives to learn. Good grades (which mean learning is occurring) are not only rewards in themselves, but are further rewarded with money, praise and privileges, and bad grades (indications of negligible learning) are marks of intellectual failure. Grades are rewards and punishments. They are meant to get children to learn. The idea seems so impeccable that it almost seems silly to question it.

Already pervading psychology is the idea that negative reinforcement (punishment) is not a good primary tool in molding people’s minds and attitudes. It turned out that beating a child too much doesn’t develop love and respect in the child, but resentment and fear. So the pendulum swung the other way: use positive reinforcement (reward).

With punishment, a student forced to do unpleasant things because he did poorly in school will likely form an inappropriate attitude for his schooling. If his grades improve from punishment, it must be questioned whether the student suddenly developed a love reading and math or he realized that it is a necessary evil in order to avoid punishment. Such reasoning is easily understood because negative reinforcement has already come under fire from psychology. But little is said about positive reinforcement—it is obviously invincible.

Or is it?

Alfie Kohn wrote a book that at first glance seems a bit too bizarre. But once we can get past our a priori acceptance of positive reinforcement, Kohn begins to make sense. In Punished by Rewards he wrote: "In the real world, even if not in the laboratory, rewards must be judged on whether they lead to lasting change—change that persists when there are no longer any goodies to be gained. This is the key question to pose to a manager who claims that performance in her division jumped after an incentive plan was introduced, or to a teacher who brags that his students read more books when they are given treats for doing so. We want to know what happens to productivity, or to the desire to read, once the goodies have run out.”

Kohn wrote that "it rarely dawns on us that while people may seem to respond to the goodies we offer, the very need to keep offering these treats to elicit the same behavior may offer a clue about their long-term effects (or lack of them)… Rewards don’t bring about the changes we are hoping for, but the point here is also that something else is going on: the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed.”

Hoping that rewarding children for their efforts at learning will bolster students’ efforts, parents and teachers have been blinded to a very real affect going on in schools. It is very easy for students to "play the game” at school; it is not essential for a student to be excelling or really learning to get good grades. Doing homework and cramming for tests are not the same thing as learning and enjoying learning. They are motions. It becomes alarming when students realize that they are being judged on their motions and external marks (grades) as opposed to internal change (real learning). The spirit of this comes in a response I was given in high school by a fellow student when I asked him if he was learning anything in school. He said, "No. And I don’t care either. As long as the work is easy and I get good grades, that’s all that matters.”

While most teachers would say that grades are not the ultimate purpose of school, functionally grades do become the rewarding and punishing factors in schooling. Students who end up with poor scores will likely end up with poor paying jobs; higher scoring students end up with higher paying jobs. Grades are price tags. Students know this, and the same teachers who say that grades aren’t the ends of education will still remind their students of the reality of our society. When the message is mixed as to the value of schooling, it is no wonder that the monetary reality is much more poignant in influencing the mindset of students than the idealistic notions of teachers (who have little faith in those notions anyway).

The problem here is obvious: grades and other forms of rewards take the place of learning. After growing up years in a system of grades, it is little wonder that students have little initiative in their learning. A high school teacher would be hard pressed to get such students to just read much if he said, "I want you all to read a book a week. Don’t worry, though—you won’t be graded.” Students already fried by rewards are going to see little reason in reading the books. Another angle on this in which teachers reinforce the prevalence of grades over learning is when a teacher says something like this: "Read the last ten chapters this week. You all can skip chapters forty-three and forty-four since they won’t be on the test.” The focus is not on learning something, but obtaining a good grade.

"The lesson,” wrote Kohn, "is that school is not about playing with ideas or taking intellectual risks; it is about doing what is necessary, and only what is necessary, to snag a better letter or number.”


John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, "Everybody knows how largely systems of punishment had to be resorted to by educational systems which neglect present possibilities in behalf of preparation for a future. Then, in disgust with the harshness and impotency of this method, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, and the dose of information required against some later day is sugar-coated, so that pupils may be fooled into taking something which they do not care for.”

The problem is deeper than grades. It is upon the assumption that children can be crammed full of information like sponges can soak up water, and that they can be trained to behave like a well trained dog that sits quietly as an offensive cat walks by. But children (and other humans) do not work that way. Punishing a child for not working that way is going to do little to change the way children learn, only the way they act and feel. Rewarding them for acting as if they were sponge-dogs still doesn’t change the fact that they are normal humans.

The largely missed trait of children is that they are eager to learn when they are young. They are constantly looking about curiously. New things catch their eyes and they want to inspect them, touch them. When they learn to talk, they incessantly ask questions. They want to know and learn. Something happens along the way that dulls their interest. Is that dulling of interest an inherently human process, or is it something that occurs as a result of culture? Dewey commented that "No one has ever explained why children are so full of questions outside of the school (so that they pester grown-up persons if they get any encouragement), and the conspicuous absence of display of curiosity about the subject matter of school lessons. Reflection on this striking contrast will throw light upon the question of how far customary school conditions supply a context of experience in which problems naturally suggest themselves.”

Dewey was saying that if schools were set up to educate human children, there would be no need for forcing children to learn with bribes and punishments. Grades would be unnecessary in compelling children to do educational tasks because the school would present situations that naturally include children in educational experiences.

I do not argue that punishments and rewards are without merit. As a father of a small boy, I would be a fool to claim that directing the life of my son is detrimental. Most activities come with a certain natural reward or punishment. But that is the point here. Reading a book has the intrinsic reward of gained knowledge, insight and entertainment. Being graded is not an intrinsic response to reading, it is an imposed response. And while not all impositions are bad, I do feel that the current process of grading and compelling is bad imposition that prints a blurred image onto the minds of students concerning the value of learning.

Whatever the stated purpose of grades, their functional effect is to punish and reward students for their participation in classroom activities. Furthermore, they take focus from education and put it on a hollow show of education. Whose education is more authentic and lasting? The student who read the book because it became relevant to him, or the student who read it for the test on Friday? Teachers and parents want the first but push for the second. They bribe the children into "learning.” But to bribe a child to study is to raise the price of learning so high that many may never be able to afford true learning.

Education, Classrooms and Kids

Essays discussing dilemmas facing the modern American classroom.

  1. The Price of Learning: Gradecard Dilemma
  2. Reading Problems

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