In With Learning, Out With Grade Worry Part II: Grade-less Learning

by Alan Kandel

On May 24, 2012, I penned the Baby Boomer Sensei blog post, “In With Learning, Out With Grade Worry.” Today, I introduce another aspect of learning: learning absent performance measures and assigned grades.

So, I try to imagine what training in the martial arts would be like without rank being attached to it. In my way of thinking, this would be analogous to getting an education without grades being assigned. To get a better grasp of what I’m referring to here, I liken this to instruction being conducted by schoolmasters in early 19th century America. Think one-room schoolhouses and groupings of students comprising a wide range of ages.

I make it no secret that I have entertained the thought for some time regarding what education would be like if students simply were to learn in an atmosphere where grades were non-existent. Students might feel less pressured to “pass,” anxiety or worry that can at times be manifested from such “pressure,” would likely be lessened if not completely eliminated, and cheating would be unheard of.

So, the first question you may be asking yourself is how performance and progress would be measured. My question in response to this is: Is it necessary that performance and progress be gauged? Would instruction and learning this way, that is, without quizzes, tests and other progress and performance measuring instruments, be any less effective? Radical though this may sound, I, nevertheless, think it’s a good question and an idea worth contemplating and exploring further.

Perhaps a person can think of this idea in these terms:

Ever see the movie “Castaway” starring Tom Hanks? The character he played in the movie in the jet he was flying in slammed into an ocean somewhere. Seemingly marooned on a remote and uninhabited island, Hanks’ character wound up fighting for his very survival. That Hanks’ character (in the movie) had been in the employ of a well-known package courier company, perhaps had given him somewhat of an edge in that he was successful regarding his survival. For Hanks’ character, the overarching message here is really quite simple: “Adapt or die!” As a castaway Hanks’ character survived, based upon using, quite innovatively and resourcefully I might add, the tools that were available to him, that and no doubt his reliance on knowledge he had acquired in the past, gained prior to this unfortunate soul getting into the seemingly dire predicament he found himself in. In fact, Hanks’ character had become so adept and resourceful, he taught himself how to create fire, secure food and even perform dental work on his own teeth! I realize “Castaway” is a fictional story. Nevertheless, Hanks’ character was quite motivated and determined to not only live but, as well, get off the island and back to civilization.

I realize that which is depicted in “Castaway” is extreme. But, what better example is there to drive home the message I’m trying to get across?

Okay, so I have to now ask how you would feel if you went through a training program, be it a martial arts or any other type of training regimen, and never received a grade, rank or score? Would this make you any less inclined to want to learn?

To help you perhaps better decide, consider this: People learn to cross streets safely. This is done absent grades. There is a saying: “Give a person a fish and that person eats for a day. Teach a person to fish and that person eats for a lifetime.” Bottom line is it is not important that a grade be assigned to the learning involved in feeding oneself for a lifetime, only that a person be able to fend for him or herself to keep him or herself alive.

So, keeping this notion in mind, what I have come to understand or learn is: Everyone learns, whether assigned grades for the learning that takes place or not. We learn how to hold and write with a pencil and/or pen. We learn how to hold a cup and to drink and/or sip through a straw. We learn how to walk, run, hop, skip and jump. These skills do not require assigned grades in order for these activities, skills, processes, what-have-you, to be learned and to occur.

Somewhere along the line, someone came up with the concept of gauging learning by assigning grades; learning that took place in a structured setting no doubt. I’m not saying learning in this manner is a bad thing. But, at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if learning would be any less effective and if people would be any less inclined to want to learn if the grading process were to be completely removed. That’s all.

Copyright © Alan Kandel. August 10, 2012.

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