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January 22nd, 2021
Can a grade become an identity? The quintessential cocktail party question hints at an answer. What is the question that arises without fail between two strangers making chit chat? What do you do?
More than a name, or a family, or a history, we define one another primarily by what we do. Putting the virtues and folly of this habit aside, it’s worthy to examine how this habit effects the young, as encapsulated by this question:
How did you do on the test?
If a child does poorly on a test, what effect does that have on that kid’s sense of identity? Attaching one’s self to an identity is certainly a poor idea, but during youth it’s an anxious consideration, and perhaps even a temporary necessity. The straight A student is commonly introduced as such to extended family and friends, but what about the student struggling with D’s and C’s? He spends time with his friends and likes the drums.
We are all painfully aware of the hierarchical frameworks with which we class people. Grades are an enormously misplaced part of these frameworks - this isn’t a new thought. Even many straight-A students sense something wrong with this grading system. But few can explain why, and how it’s such a bad system.
The answer hinges on two important concepts. The first is that practice is a self-reinforcing system. We tend to think of practice as a regular action that improves something. But think of a practice in terms of eating. Everyone eats every day. As a quick aside, the word practice comes from the Latin practizare meaning merely ‘perform’ or ‘carry out’. This is what we do with eating everyday, we perform an act of consumption, we carry out a diet either by design or whim. Does the practice here mean that we are all improving our diets steadily by default of simply eating? No not at all. But the practice does reinforce itself. Poor food choices perpetuate, and it’s not unlikely that such choices perpetuate in a worse direction through.. practice. It doesn’t take much practice before we have an epidemic of obesity.
If this concept of self-reinforcing practice is imported into the world of education, and eating is swapped out for test-taking, what sort of conclusions suddenly become apparent for the kid who regularly tests poorly? Is such a practice likely to change and improve?
The second important concept necessary to understand the enormous flaw of tests is as simple as the comparison between subtraction and addition. Tests are all about subtraction. Any test has a perfect score, and with each misstep, some percentage is subtracted from this perfect score. Our concentration on the student, from the perspective of the teacher, the parents, society, and even the student is all about how they mess up. Grades are defined by how much they miss the perfect score, not by how many good answers have added up to this deficit.
The dismal ramifications of this perspective are heartbreakingly easy to point out: we come to think that we should be perfectly prepared for what happens tomorrow, or next week, as though each action is part of a test. So we overthink, trying to see all the places where we might misstep as opposed to just getting started and figuring it out along the way.
The reality is that mistakes and missteps are where the real jewels of learning exist, but the industrial education system teaches us to avoid such mistakes and mistakes like death itself, and so learning on a large scale - especially self-directed learning - is impeded by a massive psychological gridlock.
If we grade a deep sea angler on the same metrics that we would a bird like a hawk, then it’s clear the angler is an absolute failure of a bird. But of course this misses the fact that it’s a fish. And unlike the bird, it’s learned how to hunt in pitch dark miles below the surface of the water.
The differences are eye-rollingly obvious, of course, but grading a fish like a bird is much what the industrial grading system does to some people. There’s a certain knack to test taking, and those who strike upon it just end up being able to game the system for their benefit. The point of education certainly isn’t to get all kids to clue into this knack: that’d be just as much of a waste of time and effort. No, the resolution of these dismal and constipated practices has to do with that other operation of arithmetic: not subtraction, but addition.
Society and civilization is something we’ve built. It’s an additive result of countless generations working hard to literally put things together. Society has not emerged by the result of some kind of test that matches our ability against some sort of perfect grade - some sort of utopia that we falsely imagine might be a perfect grade. No, society was constructed through exploration and tinkering. By putting things and systems and people together and seeing what happens. And look at what this practice has yielded. We now have smartphones, vaccines that can be literally printed, that is put together in a weekend. We have so many varieties of connecting it even seems to be backfiring. But of course this is part of the process. We try something and watch the effects. And the whole thing ratchets ever upward as a result.
This sort of volley between effort and result is completely absent in the realm of test-taking. You get one shot. It doesn’t matter how you’d react to the result of your effort, that’s it, the grade is stamped, and the machine rolls onward.
It seems that it’d go without saying that the point of education is to produce better learners. But few if any seem to be saying this, let alone concentrating on how to make it happen. If we were producing better learners than by the end of the absurdly long educational process, most all students would have learned to figure out the knack of test taking, but of course that isn’t happening: each student is practicing their trend, knack or not.
This focus on additive versus subtractive is one of the keys to redesigning education to work. It’s quite strange and frankly sad to realize that building a company has more in common with playing with LEGO as a kid than it has anything to do with school.
Lego is an excellent visual example. When a kid builds something on their own, of their own creation, we do not see what it could have been, we only see what was actually achieved, and it’s likely something to celebrate, even if merely for the effort. But school is all about what a student has failed to achieve by measure of a somewhat arbitrary design. The vast difference between concentrating on negative space versus positive form cannot be over emphasized. How can we ever expect students to have the courage to start companies and build new things if we’ve had them focused almost exclusively on what they might get wrong? It’s a bit of a miracle that anyone does make it through with a sense of wonder, curiosity and a drive to build intact.
Imagine a different classroom, with a different agenda. Imagine sitting down for the first class of the semester and the teacher says: this year, you are going to launch a business, and this classroom is your resource, to ask questions and explore together what each of your businesses might look like and how to make the finances work. As part of the state’s economic growth initiative, you are each being allocated $1,000 to bootstrap your ideas so that the community can have a chance to explore your creativity and ingenuity.
The teacher could be the one who signs off on the appropriateness of each business idea, which releases the funds which the teacher further verifies is spent in the designed methods.
Business is just one area that presents a comprehensive example of additive learning: it requires integrating a variety of perspectives, learning a diverse set of skills and most importantly, it requires creativity.
And most importantly, the difference between a failed business idea and a failing grade on a test couldn’t be more pronounced. The failed test automatically ranks someone against everyone else who did better, whereas, no one can really tell if a business idea is going to work or not, and when it fails, it’s much easier to take that failure as feedback instead of adopting it as an identity. Even a failed business effort is usually full of lessons to learn that can then be applied to a new attempt, whereas with a failed test, there’s nothing to learn because the chance to apply it has already passed.