Rethinking Marks and Other Extrinsic Motivators
Daughter. 16. Typing feverishly. Focused. Thinking through ideas. Creating, writing, expressing, analyzing.
Son. 14. Practicing guitar endlessly. Eyes closed. Shaping musical ideas. Listening, perfecting, creating, colouring.
What motivates DD16 to read, write and study all day, to organize her work meticulously, to fall asleep listening to Great Speeches that Changed the World? She has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, an inherent desire to learn all that she can about as many subjects as possible.
What motivates DS14 to play classical guitar music several hours a day, to delve into classical music history, to spend hours more listening to great classical guitarists, learning many of the songs he listens to and deeply enjoys? He has found what he loves more than anything else and, joyously, it happens to coincide with his natural talents.
Both are motivated by doing what they love and living in the freedom to pursue that interest as deeply as possible. They are not bound by bells or testing or standardization expectations. Instead, they are free to delve deeply into learning in their area of interest, free to become proficient, excellent. Motivated solely by the satisfaction of learning and doing the very best work possible, loving the process.
They do not need me or anyone else to push them to learn, to persist through the difficult process of learning new ideas or skills. Receiving marks or a report card will have no positive effect on their motivation. They learn and grow quickly and deeply because they love the process.
What is it that compels us to consider important only that which is quantifiable and measurable?
Consider what Alfie Kohn says:
“The carrot-and-stick approach in general is unsuccessful; grades in particular undermine intrinsic motivation and learning, which only serves to increase our reliance on them. The significance of these effects is underscored by the fact that, in practice, grades are routinely used not merely to evaluate but also to motivate. In fact, they are powerful demotivators regardless of the reason given for their use.” (p. 201)
Isn’t it far better to discover my children’s deep interest and greatest area of ability, to find creative ways to inspire my children to want to learn and keep learning of their own volition? Does not intrinsic motivation far surpass the punitive approach that grading can often be?
“Numbers and letters in our grading systems get in the way of what is important in classrooms. When we reduce learning in our students’ eyes to numbers and letters, we lose passion, we lose complexity, we lose fun, we lose depth, we lose the essence of learning.” (Wisehart, p. 146)
Consider orchestra conductor and author of The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander’s unconventional approach. He says:
“Michelangelo is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within. If we were to apply this visionary concept to education, it would be pointless to compare one child to another. Instead, all the energy would be focused on chipping away at the stone, getting rid of whatever is in the way of each child’s developing skills mastery, and self-expression. We call this practice giving an A. It is an enlivening way of approaching people that promises to transform you as well as them. It is a shift in attitude that makes it possible for you to speak freely about your own thoughts and feelings while, at the same time, you support others to be all they dream of being. The practice of giving an A transports your relationships from the world of measurement into the universe of possibility. […] This A is not an expectation to live up to, but a possibility to live into.”
“What would happen if one were to hand an A to every student from the start? Roz [Zander’s wife] and predicted that abolishing grades altogether would only make matters worse, even if the Conservatory could be persuaded to support such a plan. The students would feel cheated of the opportunity for stardom and would still be focused on their place in the lineup. So we came up with the idea of giving them all the only grade that would put them at ease, not as a measurement tool, but as an instrument to open them up to possibility.
“Each student in this class will get an A for the course,” I announce. “However, there is one requirement that you must fulfill to earn this grade: Sometime during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…,’ and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.”
“[…] Often people are quite uncomfortable with the idea of grating the unearned A because it seems to deny the actual differences between one person’s accomplishments and another’s. We are not suggesting that people be blind to accomplishment. Nobody wants to hear a violinist who cannot play the notes or to be treated by a doctor who has not passed the course. Standards can help us by defining the range of knowledge a student must master to be competent in his field. It is not in the context of measuring people’s performance against standards that we propose giving the A, despite the reference to measurement the A implies. We give the A to finesse the stranglehold of judgment that grades have over our consciousness from our earliest days. The A is an invention that creates possibility for both mentor and student manager and employee or for any human interaction. The practice of giving the A allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against these students. In the first instance, the instructor and the student, or the manager and the employee, become a team for accomplishing the extraordinary; in the second, the disparity in power between them can become a distraction and an inhibitor, drawing energy away from productivity and development.”
In our homeschool, I choose not to give marks to my children, not because I don’t want them to live out their full potential, but because I feel that finding ways to motivate them intrinsically is the best way to help them accomplish all that is possible for each of them, devoid of fear and bribes, full of confidence and joy in the learning process.
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