#003 Getting Good Grades and Positive Assessments
Be Careful With Them
In the Happiness Lab podcast, Alfie Kohn says he’s been studying how grades affect kids for decades. Grades not only undermine students’ interest in learning, but they lead them to think superficially.
When graded, kids choose easy tasks, don’t pursue extra information, and their questions don’t dig deeper or challenge the teacher. They only have one: “Do I have to know this for the test?”
When ungraded, kids spontaneously become interested in the material, work at the edge of their abilities, ask thoughtful questions, and express more joy while learning.
Alfie Kohn compares grading kids to beating them with a wooden paddle.
This got me thinking about how we’ve brought grading into our adult lives. We use our incomes, jobs, bodies, cake recipes, morals, and even feelings to assess ourselves. Technology makes it possible for us to grade ourselves even further; from the number of steps we take to the beauty of our vacation photos.
A few weeks ago, I watched the second season of Cheer on Netflix, and there’s one scene that I can’t get out of my mind.
The Navarro team sits on the mat after practice, and several students take that opportunity to dole out advice to the others about how to win the upcoming championship. It’s an assessment-fest, and everyone’s attention is focused on someone else.
Their coach, Monica Aldama interrupts:
“We don’t have to talk just to talk... there are a lot of things that ya’ll are saying, that like, if you mind your own business and worry about your own body and your own technique, then you’ll be great. I don’t understand the world we live in, right now, that’s so, like, everybody worrying about everybody else, and they’re so hypocritical... Have I not seen everybody make mistakes in this routine?”
I keep wondering whether Aldama is right. Is this a sign of our times? On top of assessing ourselves more, do we also assess each other more? It certainly seems like it, and if so, where are we getting this impulse?
More importantly, what kind of toll is that taking on us? If studies show that grades take all of the joy and curiosity out of learning, what does constant assessment do to our joy and curiosity in life? If grades lead kids to think superficially, what does it do for our ability to think deeply and create a meaningful existence?
Not too long ago, I came across a study that compares they called the “true self” versus the “actual self.” Your “true self” is who you are when you’re not trying to impress anyone. Your “actual self” is who you are to outsiders.
We experience a greater sense of meaning when our actions more closely represent our perception of our true selves.
Alfie Kohn’s research on grading has led me to change how I think about the true and the actual selves. Maybe it makes more sense to describe them as the graded-self and the ungraded-self.
Don’t we need to assess ourselves sometimes, though? We use assessment to maintain our ethics, keep our communities organized, and our interactions civil. Maybe the assessment-fest I saw in that episode of Cheer is a perfectly natural human impulse.
A lot of advice on habit-forming tells us to dangle a little treat, in the form of a positive assessment, in front of ourselves to keep motivated.
An often-told story about productivity features Jerry Seinfeld. When Seinfeld was a young comic, he hung a large calendar on his wall, and every day that he sat down to write, he drew a big red X on that day. These words are attributed to Seinfeld: “After a few days, you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
We’re supposed to understand that it was Seinfeld’s daily self-assessment that kept him productive. A good assessment is like candy for the ego.
I’ve also seen Seinfeld talk about how he’s meditated since he was a teenager. According to him, it’s his meditation practice that has contributed the most to his life, not his calendar.
I’d also like to think his meditation practice led to the advice he gives in this clip from the documentary Comedian.
In it, a struggling young comedian kvetches to Seinfeld that he feels behind in life. His friends are advancing in conventional jobs, but he’s still waiting for his big break.
Seinfeld scoffs at him. “Oh please. Is there something else you’d rather be doing?” Seinfeld gestures toward the stage. “This is a special thing. This has nothing to do with making it.”
Eventually, the young comedian asks, “What do you tell your parents?!”
Seinfeld doubles over with laughter. “What do you tell your parents?! It’s your life!”
I think Seinfeld’s message is clear: Take your focus off of the assessments and put it on your joy and fulfillment, and pretty soon, the assessments don’t matter.
If a good assessment is like candy for the ego, then I guess that makes a bad assessment something like a shit sandwich for the ego, but if you let your ego determine everything, you’ll never get to do anything interesting. Life feels like one long standardized test after another. Nothing is fascinating. It’s just a potential score.
Links and Shout-outs
This week, I’ve been watching Janice in France. A charming 70-something YouTuber who’s starting over in France. Her channel is three months old, and she already has over 12K followers. I think this is proof of my theory that people are desperate to hear from people with some true knowledge and experience.