On the “Real-World” argument for ______.

By | August 1, 2010

I found this after attending Joe Bower’s Reform Symposium talk on Abolishing & Replacing Grades:

“The notion that we best prepare children for unpleasant experiences by providing them with unpleasant experiences at a tender age is exactly as sensible as the proposition that because the environment is teeming with carcinogens, children ought to be exposed to as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they are young.  In fact, the psychological benefits of failure are overrated; it is an experience that quickly becomes redundant and gratuitously punishing.

– From Alfie Kohn’s “Is Competition Ever Appropriate in a Cooperative Classroom?


Hyoun Park on August 3, 2010 at 11:37 am.

A carcinogen kills children whereas failure rarely ever does, at least from my experience. Wouldn’t a better analogy here be more like say a vaccination? Carefully controlled doses of failure may build up their their tolerance and allow them to successfully fight off much greater difficulties later in life.

Actually, more to the point, do children actually grow up to be resilient and competent adults if they are constantly shielded from true challenges so that there is never a chance of failure?

We are seeing more and more reports from socialogists, psychologists, and psychiatrists speaking of the fragility of this next generation. How do we expect them to build genuine self-confidence if they are not permitted to be challenged and to struggle, so that they can then ultimately triumph? Do we really expect our children to build genuine self-esteem if they never have to do anything difficult and are instead congratulated on empty successes and told that they could not possibly handle something that has the remote possibility of failure?

The extremes are almost never helpful and can be at times very harmful. Are we not trading in one harmful extreme for another?

Will we be successful in helping our children if we focus solely on learning without the social, emotional, pychological, and sometimes cultural context of our students. If you believe that, do you live in an ivory tower? Do those of us who work with children from all walks of life (poor and privileged, some with serious family issues) on a daily basis see any merit in zero-risk-tolerance learning?

For these real-life, non-theoretical children, failure may not be the over-riding issue here. How we as the adults in their lives support their growth through learning experiences that leads to genuine and meaningful success in, in my opinion, is much more relevant. And that will mean that sometimes, at some point, all children will fail. Just as sometimes, at some point, all of us adults have and will no doubt fail.

Healthy dosages will lead to greater health. Too much of anything is usually bad for you. Extremes are almost never helpful.

Well, look at that, I’ve typed way more than I expected to. Sorry for the length. I think I may have gotten a bit carried away!


Ms. Bethea on August 3, 2010 at 12:16 pm.

I agree with most of your points, and many are consistent with Alfie Kohn’s other articles.

As a chemistry teacher, my job is to evaluate my student’s understanding of chemistry. Some students excel in all areas, and some fail to meet even the most basic standards. Many students do well, and some do fail. I don’t believe that students who fail to meet the basic standards of my course should not fail.

Other skills, such as turning in work on time, organization, etc., are certainly important for success in my course, and any course, but there are better ways to encourage improvement in these areas without using grades (which should reflect understanding) as a penalty. Fortunately at my school, we have a separate grading system for this.

I don’t think this is lowering standards. I expect my students to turn in work on time. I expect my students to be organized. But I want my grades to have a meaning. If two students have the same grade, it should mean that they have about the same level of chemical understanding, not that one has a higher understanding, but couldn’t manage to keep her notes organized or submit X on time, or that the other had a lower level of understanding, but a perfectly neat binder.


Hugh O'Donnell on August 11, 2010 at 9:45 pm.

Hi Ms. Bethea,

We have standards-based grading, The Science Goddess and Always Formative in common.

Currently I’m collecting responses to teachers and administrators who justify punitive grading on the basis of teaching responsibility.

In March 2010 our District adopted a revision of our grading and reporting policy that supports standards-based grading. Only took ten years to get there from the first mention of it in our 2000-2005 Strategic Plan.




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