You've probably heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, but this week, my students will be reading and blogging about an essay that argues school (at least how it's currently conceived) is itself a kind of prison. Perhaps people who have spent time in actual prisons would object to that hyperbole, as well as fume over the unappreciated opportunities of those who have access to quality schools, however pedagogically flawed those schools may be. But still, I think Peter Gray, author of "School Is a Prison--and Damaging Our Kids", has a point. For most of us, school involves a lot of discipline, a lot of coercion, and not very much freedom. And generally speaking, that's not an ideal environment for learning.
Gray argues that the school environment is not only poorly designed for learning, but that it also causes "serious psychological damage" to many young people. Not only does it arrest their creative development and curiosity, by emphasizing conformity, obedience, and standardization, but it creates endless anxiety about individual performance--a perpetual fear of failure, an aversion for risk-taking, a constant questioning of one's self-worth. The obsession with test scores and grades results in students who feel relentlessly judged.
I am in complete agreement with Gray about the danger of using points and grades as motivators for student learning. By the time students make it to college (and let's not forget that many, many don't), they have internalized the idea that grades are all that matter. Some students are obsessed with doing whatever they can to get an "A", while others are focused on doing only whatever is minimally necessary to pass. But if any activity or assignment isn't linked to a grade, the conclusion for either student is that it's irrelevant.
In this troubling scenario, learning becomes "that annoying stuff" that one needs to do (or fake) in order to get the desired grade. That's a pretty toxic attitude to have about one's education, but I think it's a pretty normal reaction to a system that is so reliant on using grades as rewards and punishments.
What does Gray suggest would be a better way? Let students take control of their own learning. Let them choose what they study. Give them back their freedom. If students are motivated to learn about X because X is interesting to them, we won't need to use grades (or extrinsic motivators) in order to get them to learn.
The objections are pretty standard: some kids need more structured environments; some kids are naturally lazy and wouldn't choose to learn anything; kids' curiosity isn't enough to guide them to the things they need to learn to function in the real world.
Maybe some of those objections are valid. Maybe not. I'm interested to hear what my students have to say.
I do know, from my own experience, that "forcing" someone to learn how to write better generally ends badly. For my students who generally associate writing with tedium, harsh judgment, and arbitrary rules--which is most of my students--I try to remind them of the pleasure that can come from writing when you actually have something to say, something that you care about, and an audience that is willing to listen, and to listen generously. When that happens, it's not about the grade. It's about the power of language. It's about being heard. It's about connecting with people. And that's so much more.