Thursday, April 8, 2010

What leads to success?

What leads to success? This is an excellent question that has no one right answer. So I'm going to take the easy way out and explain what is not the answer.

 - grading does not lead to success -

Watch the TEDtalk and then read below where I show how grading is at best unhelpful and at worst harmful towards all 8 characteristics of success.


Real learning flourishes when kids learn for its own sake. There is a big difference between a kid who reads so he can win a free pizza and the kid who reads because he wants to know what happens in the next chapter. If we care why kids do the things they do... If we can admit that motivation matters, then we have to stop bribing kids with high grades and threatening them with low grades. Interestingly enough, research1 only confirms what our hearts know. When people are told, Do this and you'll get that, they are very likely to lose interest in the 'this' and care more about the 'that'. Just as true passion for your career can't be driven by the love for money, neither can the true passion for learning be driven by the love for grades.


Learning can be hard work, and sometimes it is true that nothing comes easily, but learning can also be a lot of fun. However, in order for successful people to see hard work as fun, they need see how important effort truly is and how the idea of 'the natural' is largely a myth. Success comes from hard work, and hours upon hours of deliberate practice. Successful people understand that how you rationalize your success may be just as important as being successful. Or in other words, know why you are successful and being successful are both important. People who apply their success to external factors such as luck, task difficulty or lack of natural ability are likely to subscribe to a fixed mindset that sees intelligence and personality as finite qualities that are written in stone. The research2 shows that students who focus on their results - their grades - are likely to attribute their success to external factors. These students tend to rationalize their success or failure in terms of who they are rather than how hard they tried. And when they do this, they typically perform poorly and quit.

We want kids to get damn good at learning not grade grubbing, but this is exactly what happens when kids are given grades. When kids get their tests back from the teacher marked, what is the first question they ask of each other? When kids gets home from school after writing a test, what is the first question asked of them by their parents? Research3 shows the effects of grading and found that when students receive their work back with a comment and a grade on it, they look at two things: their grade and then their neighbors grade. If children aren't told explicitly, then they inevitably come to understand implicitly that grades are the point of school. What's wrong with this, you ask? In China, they have a saying gaofen dineng, and it translates to high score but low ability. Education in China has come to be a kind of punch line, a joke, because of their test-taking emphasis in school. The Chinese know that this kind of testing culture has come at a great cost - too many Chinese students are good at taking tests but nothing else.


Grades do encourage students to focus - but grades are narcistic - grades encourage kids to focus on grades. In China, the gaokao is like the American's SAT but on steroids and ecstasy. College admissions in China are solely and entirely dependent on performing well on the gaokao4. And if they focus enough, the top performers on the gaokao are bestowed the honor and title of zhuangyyuan, and are turned into instant celebreties. So what's the problem? the research is showing that their importance and success isn't lasting much longer than that 15 minutes. Zhuangyuans who become distinguished leaders, accomplished engineers or creative entrepeneurs are the exception and not the rule. For the most part, these zhuangyuans excel on the tests and disapear into obscurity - leading many to question why the tests were so important in the first place. In the end, grades don't help kids to focus, they are ultimately a distraction from learning.


Most people will agree that motivation is an important characteristic for successful people. Most people understand that there are two flavors of motivation - intrinsic and extrinsic - and most people would agree that successful people have a healthy dose of intrinsic motivation. The problem here is that the research5 shows that when kids are given a task and told this is an opportunity to learn rather than to do well, they are more willing to challenge themselves. When the classroom is sold as a place to show off how good you are, learning simply becomes a means to an end, and too often the most rational way to achieve the desirible end (a high grade) is to avoid projects that are challenging. Grades create an emphasis on performance and results that leads predictably to less intellectual exploration - or in other words, less learning.


Narcisim corrupts. Aboslute narcisism corrupts absolutely. Grades do nothing to encourage students to think of others. In fact, grades artificially turns the classroom into a competition - and the name of the game is to collect more As and look smarter than your neighbour. If your working on a group project that will be graded, its hard to see your lazy partner as someone you need to help; rather, it is more likely that you will see him as an albatross that the teacher unfairly dumped on you. Grades encourage you to focus on the wrong inequity - there are grades to be gotten and the albatross will hold you back; however, the true inequity is that you are learning and the albatross isn't - and so you need to help him. This is how true character education is born, but this kind of perspective is not the default. Be honest, how many of you can put a face to this albatross I speak of, someone from your schoolhood past whom you still resent because they held you back from higher grades? Be honest again, how many of you were the albatross? Research6 also shows convincingly that collaboration, as opposed to competition, is a far more productive way of becoming successful If we truly care about serving others, then we need to stop using grades to artifically pit students against each other.


Bill Gates talks about having ideas, and ideas are important. To have ideas you have to have an imagination - but to actually produce something from that imagination, you have to be creative. Students who have come to see learning as a means to an end (high grades), tend to think less deeply while reducing the quality of their thinking. Reproduce the teachers knowledge, requires a lot less imagination and creativity than producing your own understanding. If the class is grading a test during class, and a student gets the question right, but totally guessed, what are the chances the student will say, "wait a minute, giving me credit here is misleading. I may have chosen the correct response but I actually don't have an understanding for what the question was asking me. Teacher, you can chose to give me credit or not give me credit, that's up to you, but I would like to take some class time right now and learn about the content of that question"? The plausibility of this is absurd. Learning should be like this, but grades won't ever allow it to be so. Research7 confirms that students who are more interested in understanding than succeeding outperform those who are distracted by scoring good grades.


Persistance and resiliency in the face of mistakes and failures is universally accepted as a critical characteristic of successful people. We know no one succeeds all the time, and we know that there is a lot to be learned from our failures. In order to succeed, we have to push our own limits. You will never create something new and creative if you aren't prepared to be wrong. However, grades explicitly tell children that the point of school is to succeed - or even to be better than others. If the point of school is more about proving how good you are and less about learning and improving, it's pretty hard to cope with being less than good. And this is exactly what the research8 tells us - people who come to see school as an exercise in collecting high grades are likely to fall apart when they experience a set back or frustration. They see mistakes and failure as things that should never happen. In contrast, successful people see mistakes as valuable information to be used to figure out what went wrong and then fix it. Grades do not encourage students to have a healthy and relilient attitude towards failure - too often they are simply debilitating. And if you need proof, just ask a student who has historically received low grades and ask them how motivating those low grades were for them.

What leads to success? I'm not sure. That's an intimidating question with any number of different answers, but I do know this - grading is not the answer, and the sooner we abolish grading from our classrooms the better.

What's that you say? You are made to grade by some external force such as your department, principal, superintendent, premier or governor?

Okay, but I would wager that you are probably grading more than they demand of you. I am willing to bet that you could assign and talk about grades less than you are now. I get that grades are not going to vanish over night - that's okay. I could live with a world that had kids only think of grades on report card day (at least until we could abolish report cards too - that is report cards as we typically know them: grade-spewing scripts)

Yes, many students have gone through their education with grading, and have gone on to be successful. But if you ask any of them, it is likely they're success was in spite of grades, not because of them.

If you enjoyed this TEDtalk by Richard St.John... if you find any truth in his 8 characteristics of success, then you owe it to yourself and your students to do everything in your power to make grades invisible in your classroom.

For more on abolishing grading, take a look at this page.

1 For more on rewards harm intrinsic motivation, read up on Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's Self-Determination Theory.

2 For more on how focusing on ability encourages a fixed mindset and how focusing on effort encourages a growth mindset, read up on Carol Dweck's book Mindset.

3 For more on how grades encourage shallow thinking and discourage creativity, see Ruth Butler's study that she conducted on elementary students in Isreal.

4 For more on the harmful effects of China's testing culture, read Yong Zhao's Catching Up or Leading the Way.

5 For more on the harmful effects of rewards, read Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards. Dan Pink's book Drive is good too.

6 For more on how competition is inferior to collaboration, read Alfie Kohn's book No Contest.

7 For more on how grades discourage creativity and artificially limit thinking, read Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve.

8 For more on how grades discourage persistence and resiliency, read Carol Dweck's Mindset, and Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, The Schools Our Children Deserve


  1. Fantastic work - thanks for compiling this! I wrote about the video a while back, but now I'll have to go back and add a link to this post. I don't know if you already picked a sentence after reading Dan Pink's Drive, but I think I've got one for you:

    "He made it impossible for educators to justify placing neat numbers over real learning or stifling order over productive chaos."

  2. some of your best work Joe


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