Joseph Ferenbok for the TRP | February 2021

“Grades don’t matter!”

Over the years, this has become a TRP mantra, “Grades don’t matter,” but it’s wrong.

Grades do matter. Grades matter to students.  Having been taught all their educational career that grades open doors, or that they are the comparative measure of scholastic self-worth, grades do matter to students.  Grades matter to teachers.  They are an attempt to regulate and coordinate the student body to a teacher’s will–a tool of discipline and authority.  And grades matter to schools, educational systems, and government officials.  Grades are a means of maintaining order, a system of surveillance, reward, and punishment.  They are the measure of the distribution of awards, grants, funding, policies, and performance.  Grades do matter.  To say that grades don’t matter is wrong, and to say that grades shouldn’t matter is both idealistic and open to debate.

However, this wasn’t the original sentiment behind what has developed as a mantra that I hear from students and instructors alike.  This wasn’t the intended philosophy behind the TRP.

Grades may matter, but grades, at least in my opinion, shouldn’t be the goal of motivating purpose driving “learning”.  To ‘teach’ students and instructors alike that fighting over percentage points or interpretations of rubrics for a measure, to sum up, a person’s performance—and future potential—has nothing to do with learning.  Ranking students as a disciplinary form of performative surveillance based on an assignment, a snapshot in time is a convenient tool that better serves the system than the individual.  What is called a summative assessment, has the distinct disadvantage of being almost entirely blind to issues of personal growth and development, to questions of understanding or higher-level thinking.  Grades based on performative assessments, strategies that give students feedback, and (sometimes) the ability to demonstrate change and improvement based on that feedback, also have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to facilitating learning.

In the end, though perhaps not universally true grades or individual ranking, does not do a good job of ranking learning potential, critical thinking, knowledge retention, or its application–wisdom.  What’s more, is that grades, no matter how they are used, have significant disincentives for peer learning, collaboration, teamwork, and even personal and professional development and growth.

Perhaps a necessary tool of the industrial education legacy, it’s not that “Grades don’t matter,” it’s that a focus on grades and grading distracts both students and teachers alike from a focus on learning—from a focus on personal and collaborative initiative, from individual exploration, and personalized learning.  These are the values that the TRP program attempts to encourage and these are the very competencies that an obsession with grades tends to obscure.

Grades do matter, but if you are trying to learn–to develop personally and professionally–then it’s necessary to position grades as a derivative of the process, as opposed to its goal.