A Person is Not a Line Chart (Part 1)

Suppose someone tried to assign a number to everyone to determine their total worth. That person would not get very far because a person is far more than a number. A person is just that: a living, breathing human being. To assign numerical values or to compare two people as people is meaningless and futile. That was my daily burst of Captain Obvious.

However, this exact phenomenon happens every single day, across every developed country on Earth. Furthermore, people make significant life decisions based on these numbers and rankings. Parents assess the intelligence and societal value of their child based on this. By now, you have probably guessed that I am talking about school.

In our world, school and grades are virtually synonymous. Grades are, quite frankly, the only reason most kids attend school. Good grades act as a certificate of merit, and passing school (also based on grades) is required by both the state and most employers. The pursuit of knowledge for the purpose of applying it in the real world and the purpose of using it to become a more well-balanced scholar has taken the backseat to a macabre, ruthless competition for grades.

Now I make my first claim: excessive grades reduce the quality of education. This is, at face value, counter-intuitive. Were not grades developed to provide more precise and more personalized education? Do they not function, as they were intended to, as measures of a student’s success and progress such that the student can be taught in the way best for him?

I use the phrase “excessive grades” to mean the obsessive-compulsive pursuit of numbers and measurement in a situation where these two things are inappropriate. Excessive grading leads to the inclusion of more things to grade, that is, more curriculum, more requirements, and more standards. These things are invariably included to be more impressive to the state, to parents, and to students themselves. But ultimately, the inclusion of unnecessary curriculum strips attention away from key concepts that students will actually learn, remember, and use. More requirements and standards give the impression that “increased achievement standards are being introduced and met” (an absurdly common phrase) while again obscuring what really matters.

A student will never need everything he learns in school. He will draw more upon facts in his area of expertise and draw a little bit on everything else, but a marine biologist does not need to know about the combinatorial nullstellensatz. As such, since school teaches information in a variety of fields, it should emphasize key concepts and the “gist of the matter” rather than vocabulary words and minutiae.

Unfortunately, the pressure to include more in teaching draws attention away from the pieces of knowledge that students actually care about and will assimilate for the rest of their lives. The understanding of the spirit of numerical precision (an ironic example) and mathematical logic is far more important than the short-term memory of any specific formula or theorem, especially if the student is not a math/engineering major. Excessive grades result are the cause of too much detail in the curriculum, and clearly this reduces the quality of the overall education.

But where do we go from here? We certainly can’t rid ourselves of grades altogether, since there would be no proof of an education. But we have shown conclusively that too much grading is quite harmful. So where is the happy balance? Is there a solution that addresses both these concerns?

I will examine these core issues on tests in education in Part 2.

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