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« Excuses, excuses | Main | Great minds think alike »

Reaching those that don't care about grades

If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show. Incentivize them. That's how business works. But that's not happening here. You've got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity. And it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity. Daniel Pink

Dan Pink's TED talk about intrinsic motivation is well worth watching. It's OK. I'll wait.

Pink very much comes to the same conclusion about what motivates adult workers as Alfie Kohn observed about what motivates students in Punished by Rewards back in 1993. See: "Creating Fat Kids Who Don't Like to Read." Again, take your time. I'll be here when you get back.

Here's what both Pink and Kohn both tell me as an educator. If you want permanent, long-term learning or behavioral change, you won't do it with M&Ms, a special event for doing well on a test, or even saying "good job."

In fact we've all known lots of kids who were plenty smart but just didn't give a damn about what little letters appeared on their report cards. (My children NEVER saw my old report cards, I'll tell you that!) Yet we as a profession still pretend that all kids should care about their GPAs.

Many kids, possibly a growing percentage, will only be reached through the heart, not the head. Only when they care about the topic and understand its relevance, interest and meaning to them or those they care about, will they engage.

It's one reason we still need libraries with books on a wide range of reading levels on a broad range of topics if we want to create readers. It's why every child should have access to the Internet with it's seemingly infinite range of topical information (and librarians to help children learn to find it) if we want to create life-long learners.

Unfortunately Arne Duncan or Barrak Obama don't understand this. At all. I'm guessing they were both "good" students for whom it was all about scores and stars.

Maybe it's time for somebody who had "not working to his potential" written on her report card running education. It would be different.

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Reader Comments (12)

I just had this discussion with a teacher. She was complaining that there should be a hard 85% gpa requirement to get in Honors. Her point is that they are getting less out of it than they would if they received over a 85%. My response with her is that I was the type of student that did little to no (emphasis on no) homework so my GPA was low, but I LEARNED more in advanced classes than I would have in a lower level. Those numbers were meaningless to me, and "not working to his potential" should have been tattooed onto high school Brad, but I still loved the discussions, learned from the lectures, participated in debates and deserved a seat in those classes. I was motivated by the actual learning and realized early on that most homework (then and now) was more about jumping through hoops than actual learning.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

My question to you Doug, is this, why not send this (with or without some editing.) to the President AND Micheal Bloomberg?
(And anyone else you think could use it.) It was nice to see that Daniel Pink is the same on camera as he is in print.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

Just watched this last week - funny thing is, I have enough trouble with my students getting them to change some of their habits about minor things. I also wonder whether as a high school teacher I would even be able to incorporate these ideas when most colleges are primarily interested in GPA. How could I convince both the school and all colleges and universities and GPA doesn't really matter...that they should trust me (or trust the student)to know whether a student learns or not?

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Intrinsic motivation, that's an interesting topic.
"In fact we've all known lots of kids who were plenty smart but just didn't give a damn about what little letters appeared on their report cards. (My children NEVER saw my old report cards, I'll tell you that!) Yet we as a profession still pretend that all kids should care about their GPAs." Great idea. What counts are the passion towards learning amongst learners, not the score or grade, especially when these kids are STILL developing their metacognition skills. No one is born with hatred towards learning, I suppose, though there might be learning difficulties due to congenital defects or ADD (attention deficit disorder). People hate learning for a variety of reasons - fear of failure, fear of risks, poor grades, intimidation by others, lack of study skills, lack of confidence, lack of self-awareness, poor impression on education, poor experience with learning, poor impression on educators, et.
Using grades to distinguish the "good" from the "bad" students not only demotivate learners, but casting them as someone who is deficit of certain learning abilities and capacities. That's where educators could intervene, and we as parents, teachers, liberians and learners could all support and help our fellow students in their learning journey, again not be just stimulating them with incentives, but to model to them in action - that they can learn and improve through themselves by learning with others, and reflecting on their learning. That their achievement of potential is only limited by themselves.

Thanks for your interesting post.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSui Fai John Mak

Heh. In Junior High I was classifed as LAHP: low achievement, high potential. The guidance counselor told my father (a HS teacher) that I was 'too curious about too many things that were not part of the curriculum." My father's reply: "Good: that means she is using her brain." So I became a librarian, where curiiousity is part of the job requirement.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteralice yucht

Alas, once again it is clear that "teaching to the test" and collecting grades until you have the (supposed) requisite GPA and/or test score is absolutely inimical to LEARNING.

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

"Maybe it's time for somebody who had "not working to his potential" written on her report card running education."
Funny you would say that....I thought that's what we had in our former president.

September 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl Martin

"Only when they care about the topic and understand its relevance, interest and meaning to them or those they care about, will they engage."

Obviously. If a topic is boring and irrelevant, why *should* students care about it? In fact, they should not; it's a waste of their time and they know it. They should be concentrating on something with actual bearing on their lives, presented well enough that they can see the connection.

However, I think President Obama effectively addressed that by asking students to think about their goals. Theirs -- not necessarily what teachers or parents may have set for them. The important thing is for kids to consider what they want to accomplish, and what steps -- academic or otherwise -- they'll need to take in order to get there.

September 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Barrette

Everyone focuses on the standardized state test scores these days. In my day as many of you have mentioned, GPA was the big issue. Grades were everything. I guess from reading all of your posts they must either still be or the system is still pushing it. Yes, grades are still important in my school, but I see a trend towards progress for the sake of progress. We seem to be more concerned that you are moving forward than if you are learning. What happened to the idea of the joy of learning? We are so wrapped up in the numbers. I really don't think that true learning has a specific test that can show us exactly how our students have improved. I am still peeved over the fact that the people who create the tests are not in some cases educators. Shouldn't teachers be in charge of assessment? I viable assessment should show not what the student has learned but how far they have come from where they were. That is why I think portfolios are such great tools of assessment. It is too bad we don't use them more often.

September 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMack

Hi Brad,

Perhaps the discussion should center around the number of different ways one can actually reach the "85%" mark? I'm not against standards or accountability, but I like options for different learning styles and abilities.

Thanks for your comment,


Hi Janet,

If I thought that anyone at the federal level actually cared about education, I would. Sorry to sound cynical, but I believe it will be Blue Skunk readers that will make the meaningful changes in our world - not the politicos.

Thanks for the note,


Hi Kenn,

I was under the impression that more colleges are now looking at things like leadership, public service and broad interests than just GPAs and test scores. And as I responded to Brad above, I am not against holding kids to high standards IF we give them options on how to demonstrate their learning.

Thanks for the comment!


Hi Sui Fai,

Many would argue that letter grades were established to "sort" students for employment in an industrial age - give "grades" to people like we would metals or meat. That doesn't work well in economies where everyone is expected to be educated and be able to solve problems.

I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Thank you.



I find it hard to believe you were ever considered an under-achiever! It sounds like you had a wonderful dad.

Good to hear from you!


Hi Carolyn,

And that is why recognizing that teaching is a "subversive activity" is more important now than ever!





Hi Mack,

It seems to me that scores can be used to either sort or to measure progress. Measuring I have no issue with - charting individual growth is good. But to rank children by letter grade is unproductive.

Thanks for commenting,


September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

As you grow up, you would reach a certain point where you should want to measure your achievements on your own terms. Grades or money are measures that you may choose to use or not to use, if you prefer to use some other type of measure.

All children should be made aware that there is such a point in life, and this should happen sooner rather than later.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphilip

Hi Philip,

It would be nice if this were the case with everyone. But I know plenty of adults who still keep score using bank accounts, houses, job titles, etc.

Thanks for the comment,


October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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