Error as a source of learning rather than a symbol of failure is necessary and essential to life, but in today’s educational system error is penalized.

One way or another, we all fall or have fallen into traps. We have believed that school grades mean something, that they tell us how our children work, how intelligent they are, how they behave in class and worst of all, we have introjected them – they make their own traits, behaviors or other fragments of the world that surrounds us – as the unequivocal predictor of future success or failure.

They make us proud, they embarrass us, they worry us, they alert us, they distance us, they fly over our homes with almost absolute power; the power we have given them.

It is one of the symptoms of a culture that loves results, not the process, forgetting by the way that a grade is only a number, subjective, punctual, corseted and very limited.

The person is not defined by this or any other measurement. They are not predictors of anything and mean practically nothing. Grades only evaluate, in the best of cases and subjectively, a punctual execution, on a subject, at a time in the life of a child.

In that valuation the effort or lack of it, the motivation, the personal or emotional situation that this little one may be living in that particular moment of his story is invisible.

In addition, and if that were not enough, they send a very toxic message in education and parenting: the experience of error as a symbol of failure and not as a source of learning, necessary, essential for life. The error is penalized.

The conclusions of new research conducted in the United States by Schinske and Tanner, about the history of qualifications in higher education in the United States, and whether or not they really fulfill the potential purposes of qualifying learning were:

“At best, grades motivate high-achieving students to continue to get good grades, regardless of whether that goal coincides with learning. At worst, grades decrease interest in learning and accentuate anxiety and extrinsic motivation, especially in students who have difficulties.”

In short, they are another leg of the award-punishment paradigm so internalized in our society, that we hardly noticed it. Good behavior, the result, is rewarded.

The other, the one that is not the expected one, the divergent one, the questioner, in short, the “inappropriate one” is punished. We train our children in motivating themselves from outside them, extrinsic motivation is called, that which makes us “ex-dependent”, voracious of external approval, recognition, applause, and admiration.

That which in many people has become the script of their lives, and, without that feedback, fall into the confusing emptiness they have inside. People who, as children, never learned to do things for pleasure, for curiosity, for their own choice, for genuine interest. Those who internalized that they were loved based on what they were doing and not what they were.

It is the boy who grows up believing he is a failure because he fails or the girl who assumes that, if she fails, she would disappoint the world and the world would stop loving her.

Knowing history is necessary not to repeat mistakes

Let’s learn a little history, which always helps to understand and minimizes the chances of making the same mistakes again.

What is the origin of the current grade-based educational system?

The inventor of the first system of degrees or academic qualifications was William Farish, a professor at the University of Cambridge (England, 1792) who set out to design a work method that allowed him to evaluate and classify the work of his students.

At this time the income of the workers began to fluctuate depending on the volume of work they could take on. In the field of education, many schools began to pay teachers based on the number of students they had, instead of a fixed salary.

For teachers like Farish, knowing their students in detail could be an excessive waste of time. Interacting with each child daily, paying attention to their needs, their learning styles, etc, meant putting a limit on the number of students that he could have, and therefore, it meant an income ceiling.

But with the proposed new model it was no longer necessary to inquire into the minds of his students to know if they had understood a topic: the grading system would do it for him. And it would do it with the same efficiency regardless of the number of students he had in class.

In short, what Farish created was a teaching method based on “grades” that allowed him to process more students in a short period of time. With this “innovation”, far from being able to stimulate the students’ learning process, what they achieved was to swing them towards a much more superficial cognitive plane.

This grading system forced children to memorize by repetition only the details necessary to pass the tests without taking into account the true understanding of the subject. Sounds familiar?

The normative effect of the grades was to reward the students who are in the “standard” and cut off the concerns or abilities that go beyond the norm. Again, sounds familiar? What later became known as formal education simply sought to train easily replaceable individuals, not to educate them.

The way to achieve this was to eliminate the differences between individuals, to “standardize” them. In this educational model the responsibility falls fully on the student since if it does not adapt it is because it has some type of “disorder”.

There is a unanimity in the demand of parents when they seek help with their children.

As parents and teachers, we are the architects of stimulating and helping a child to lay the foundations of a solid self-concept, the basis of happiness and vital success. But we also have the power to do the opposite and condemn many others to carry a backpack whose weight they can never let go.

As for labels, I can’t think of anything greater than a number, a word: insufficient, outstanding.

So, I throw some questions for reflection

How much of our own academic or school history do we project on the interpretation we make of our children’s grades? Do we suffer it? Did the mirage of a good, competent boy or girl create us? Did it help us build self-esteem based on academics? Did it make us flee in terror to a place that had nothing to do with academics?

No one was left unharmed. The question is to what extent I am transferring the good or bad of that experience to my children. Fear is free and freedom to make mistakes too, but the right to transfer it to those who depend on us; that we have no right to do.

We must ask ourselves, then:

1. How is it that the enormous importance we give to these numbers influences in the short, medium and long term in a child?

2. How much weight we are giving and how much they influence us in the way we value our child and in the natural fear of the failure we have, by definition, all parents?

And in this exercise of reflection it seems that it becomes essential, as educators that we are, what we want to convey, instill, as a real priority: tenacity, effort, curiosity, interest, passion, or fear to failure, to punishment, to non-recognition? If we agree on the former, grades are not a reliable reference.

There are many known historical examples of children who got bad grades, Einstein may be the most popular of all, who paradoxically got bad grades in math, but there is also the case of Winston Churchill who coined the phrase: “I’ve always liked to learn. What I don’t like is that they teach me,” or even Edison himself from whom a teacher said that “he was too stupid to learn anything”.

I do not intend to make a plea against evaluating a student, but against doing so as it was done more than 200 years ago. The idea is, in short, that we take a little distance and perspective and give these numbers a less prominent place, that we relativize their importance and their value, that we are able to look at our children above their academic achievements synthesized in a number or word.

More importantly than everything else, that we do not allow them to hinder our bond with children, that we chase catastrophic prejudices about success and failure, and instead support them to strive, to seek their true interest, to understand why and for what they study, and to understand that life does not translate into results judged by others.

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