Debate Magazine

What Happens When Grades Matter to Someone Other Than the Student and the Teacher

By Stevemiranda

Earlier this month, I wrote a post describing grades as a process of certification.

Certification is different from education, which (from the Latin root educare) is a process of drawing forth wisdom that is within you.

One of my favorite students of all time, now a graduate student in mathematics at Harvard, responded:

I do wonder sometimes, though, whether many of the problems with education come not from grades per se, but from the fact that grades matter to people other than the student and teacher.

Take the example of a 14-year-old poet. There is no need to certify them, you are right. On the other hand, a quantitative measure of mastery at the end of the course might be useful to the student. If it high, maybe they know that they would be able to follow a more rigorous course in literature, whereas if it is low they would know that they would benefit more from something less intense. It doesn’t need to be certification; it can just take the form of “for your information, here is my opinion of your progress with these skills and ideas.” And also, it shouldn’t be anything more than a teacher’s opinion.

* * *

Students benefit from feedback. Whether that feedback comes quantitatively from an expert in the field, or from a letter used as a symbol, or maybe the feedback is built into the learning process—the audience didn’t laugh at my jokes, I missed the free throw, the science experiment yielded no useful data, etc.—meaningful feedback helps.

It’s when that feedback matters to someone other than a student and a teacher, such as a potential employer or an admissions rep at a desired graduate school, that it turns into certification.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with certification processes. But we should acknowledge they have nothing to do with education.

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