If we wanted to create a form of feedback that encouraged students to focus less about making sense of what they're doing and more on how successful they've been while comparing themselves to others, I could not think of a better system than grading.
Next time you hand back that assignment with a grade and comments, sit back and watch the kids. I will almost guarantee they will look at two things - the first will be their own mark and the second will be their neighbour's mark. Ruth Butler's research confirms this.
While it is true that focusing on what you're learning and how well you are learning are not mutually exclusive, these two focuses lead to very different behaviours. Marilyn French puts it this way:
Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.
In his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn adds:
What could possibly be wrong with results? To answer this question, we first have to recognize that for people to think about how well they're doing is not at all the same as thinking about what they're doing. These represent two very different mind-sets for parents, students, and educators.
Imagine two parents, for example, both of whose children mention that they wrote an essay in school that day. One parent wants to know how good the essay was and asks what the teacher said about it. The other parent asks about the essay itself and the process of writing it: Why did you choose that topic? Did your opinion about the subject change while you were writing? How did you decide what to include in the opening paragraph?
Or imagine a student who comes home from school announcing that "she had a great day because she got an A, did better than her best friend, or ... won the spelling bee." These accomplishments reflect a very different set of goals than those held by a student who says "she had a great day because she finally mastered long division, read a wonderful story about India, or tried to solve a really difficult problem." One of these children regards learning as a means (to a grade or victory or just to being able to say she was successful). The other regards learning as an end.
When young minds see learning and achievement as opposites while so many adults see them as synonymous, things go badly. While it makes sense to occasionally stop and reflect upon how well we've been learning, most of our time should be spent focusing on what we are learning; and yet, I think it's pretty safe to say that most classrooms are carried away with grading, and so paradoxically and yet quite predictably, we wind up with learners that are more concerned with "levels of achievement than layers of learning."
Because Learning oriented learners outperform results oriented learners, there's good reason why researchers like Carol Dweck say "Performance goals may well create the very conditions that have been found to undermine intrinsic interest." A wealth of research on this topic has led many to understand that "students who have been led to focus on how well they're doing tend not to do very well" and that "learning goals will lead to better task outcomes than will performance goals."
The process of assigning children percentiles helps to ensure that schooling is more about triumphing over everyone else than about learning.By definition, grading can only ever be experienced as a reward and punishment, which is reason enough to be concerned, but as Kohn points out, grading inherently turns learning into a competition:
The second way of increasing the destructive potential of a performance orientation is to get students thinking not just about how well they're doing, but how well they're doing compared to everyone else. Learning doesn't stand a chance when the point is to keep up with, or triumph over, other students... The idea isn't for students to understand or even for them to perform well. The idea is for them to win.Do grades tell kids where they stand?
Yes, they do.
In fact, they do a remarkable job of it; however, it would appear that this strength of grading turns out to be one of the very reasons the research suggests we shouldn't be using grading in the first place.
Educators have fiddled and fussed over getting grading right for a long time - during that time we've been enamoured with answering the question how do we grade better despite all the pitfalls and problems, when we should be asking why do we continue to grade at all in spite of the pressures to do so.