Grades are a controversial subject. Is our whole educational grading system out of whack? Should we suspend grading students’ work altogether? Of course not. We need a system to evaluate how much a student has learned so that he can be given feedback, hopefully positive. That said, I don’t think taking grades is necessary in every subject every day.
Grades fall into the extrinsic motivation category. Some students are very motivated to work for an A. If parents set the expectation for their young student that he will learn his lessons to an A level, and if the student has the tools necessary to learn to an A level, the student should be able to meet that expectation. When we praise the student for his achievements, motivation to continue working hard is the result. However, we can’t set expectations that are not attainable for our children. Frustration will be the result in such a situation.
In the realm of home education, we have the opportunity to break tasks down into manageable pieces or skip over material the young student isn’t yet ready for and wait until he is developmentally ready to tackle it.
Contrast that with the first-grade classroom where a student’s readiness to learn phonics or tell time is not taken into account. If the textbook says it’s time to tell time, and he is not ready to tell time, he will receive a poor grade which will in turn lower his self-esteem. Receiving a bad grade is one of those “sticks” that Dan Pink talks about in his book Drive, while the promise of an A is a “carrot.” This is a common situation. Yet psychological research has shown that students do not respond well when they are bribed with carrots or threatened with sticks. In fact, the result is they tend to lose interest.
In addition, comparing students to other students via grades is hardly fair, in the classroom especially. It is common knowledge that children do not all learn at the same rate, so why lump them all together and grade them according to how they compare to the other students in the class?
In the home-education environment, children move at their own speed (which is generally faster than the speed of a thirty-student classroom). Children are not corrected in front of other children, which is important to self-esteem. If a young child does not completely grasp a concept, the parent-teacher will catch it right away and can correct the situation early on, before the student is labeled a “slow reader” or “not a math whiz.”
Grades are not always useful metrics, and I don’t advocate their usage as anything besides a yardstick against which a child can measure his own progress.
While I certainly want my children mastering their material daily, sometimes they have to work harder to achieve mastery than they do at other times. Understanding becomes the goal, not simply getting an A.
Self-propelled kids understand that yes, they can do well independently, and they don’t want to lose that freedom by neglecting to reach mastery. Self-teaching is a freedom, but it is an earned freedom. If my students are not showing mastery, I will be looking over their shoulders to find out why. They don’t like being restrained in this manner.
Grades are not the ultimate goal for self-propelled students; freedom to work independently is.
Some kids read better than others, and as a result, they are able to progress quickly. Some kids may read well but be less gifted in logic. All kids have strengths and weaknesses. All kids have subjects they like more than others. The secret to motivating our children to learn is not to teach them that the goal is an A. We must go further than that and help them see the big picture: self-effort is rewarding. If you work harder, you’ll get further, faster. Making progress becomes an extrinsic reward.
Grades are a necessary evil in the classroom because a teacher lacks the time to teach everything to each student’s level of mastery. Unfortunately, some students become accustomed to failing which over time causes them to resist learning altogether.
Then there are the higher-achieving students who barely need to break a sweat in order to make all A’s. Remember those “smart kids” in high school who didn’t even have to study? They might not have it so good after all. When they are faced with a challenge that does require their utmost concentration and effort, they may actually taste failure because they haven’t been conditioned to put out more than a minimum of effort.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again. College is often a rude awakening. The motivation to work hard was never developed in these students because everything came easily, so when they actually need to pour on the effort, they can’t dig down deep and find the resolve to truly work for the sake of learning. That is unfamiliar territory.
Giving kids material that is challenging—not too easy or too difficult—is the key to full engagement in high school and beyond.
 Daniel H. Pink, Drive, p. 37.
About the Author
Joanne Calderwood has been called America’s Homeschool Mom. She is an underwhelmed Mom of eight great kids, owner of URtheMOM.com, and an author and columnist. Her new book, The Self-Propelled Advantage: The Parent’s Guide to Raising Independent, Motivated Kids Who Learn with Excellence, enables parents to teach their kids to teach themselves with excellence.