I was on the phone with my dad today, which is our Wednesday tradition, and we were having a conversation about education. It’s pretty typical for me to share what I’m up to with teaching and learning, and he usually has some input. He’s an incredibly fiery and vocal guy, clocking in at 5’5”, so you could say we have a few similarities.
My dad is not a teacher or in the educational field, but he coached basketball for many years. You could say it’s his passion. He worked mainly with middle schoolers, and played himself. And because of that, he often will make comparisons between my classroom and coaching.
Much of the time, he’s not far off in those comparisons.
Education and coaching are similar fields. As someone who has done both, I’ve seen the overlap. And today, my dad said something that he’s said to me several times.
In advocating for competition, he said, “If it’s not about winning or losing, then why is there a scoreboard?”
It struck me for a moment.
What would happen if we turned off the scoreboard? What would our driving factors be? Why would we play?
It would be like practice.
In practice there are no scoreboards. We are not there to compete. We are not there to see who is the best and worst. Our purpose is not to win.
We are there to grow our skills. We are there to learn.
Then what, exactly, is the purpose of grading with points and percentages?
When we assign points to assignments, we are encouraging competition among our students. We are encouraging them to quantify their learning and gauge themselves against each other.
It’s easy to say that this is not the highlight of your grading practice and that you tell students to keep their percentages and scores to themselves. This was exactly my argument three years ago.
But the fact of the matter is this: Your students are 100% talking about and comparing their grades. They are 100% competing with each other.
Quantifying a student’s learning process is not a productive practice. It reduces their learning to a single letter, one that will either be a point of pride or shame. That quantity will be a source of pride only if it is the best compared to others and a source of shame if it is lower than the rest. By definition, grades promote comparison and, because it is our nature, a desire to come out on top.
Learning should be like practice. Our students’ focus should be on growing their skill sets and mastering new things, whether it be a jump shot or an effective thesis statement. They should be working to improve their understanding and willing to try (and fail) at something new. They should be getting feedback that is designed to help them grow.
Learning should not be held to a standardized measuring stick. It should not consistently empower certain students and silence others. It should not encourage those who get there faster, while crushing those who need more guidance and time.
Learning should be an individual evolution. It should be a process that adapts and expands in each of our students. It should encourage them to persevere, to think, and to thrive.
It’s time to turn off the scoreboard. Because learning is not a competition.