Report cards equal debate. So should anything that requires reflecting hundreds of hours worth of conversation, research, invention and developing ability in a number. Imagine asking a parent to describe (or rate?) their child with one number. Wouldn’t it depend on the day?… On their activity? On their level of interest? On the task and their experience with it? I can’t convince myself that a parent who has watched their child grow, smile, learn to crawl and speak for the first time, wants their ability or potential to be reduced to a single number… To what end?
Who then, is the number for? The child? Is it intended to motivate them? To reward them? To “prepare them for the future?” Daniel Pink suggests in his latest book, Drive, that the best use of money as a motivator is to pay adults enough to “take if off of the table” as an issue. For children, school grades are what come in life before money. Historically and theoretically, they serve the same purpose. But do we honestly believe that we can motivate students by assigning them a number every 3 months? “You’re a 3 Billy… but with more work, you could be a 4.” Does 13 year old Billy honestly care if he’s a 4? Is he genuinely likely to engage more in learning for a 4 on the piece of paper we hand him in January? More likely to discover his passion? To create? To understand even? Recent research and innovation in the business world increasingly suggest that when tasks require creative conceptual thinking, rewards don’t work. Sure, if you give a group of people an algorithm to apply and a bonus for speed, bonuses will make a difference, but not if we’re looking for innovation or invention. Would we rather our children apply procedural knowledge with speed, or think deeply and redefine conventional assumptions? We have all had goosebumps listening to someone sing, reading an incredible novel or watching an extraordinarily skilled athlete perform? Do we honestly believe that their success was a direct result of, motivated or inspired by a quantitative assessment?
Arguably, sport is an industry in which we are on the cutting edge of “producing results” and “achieving success.” In fact, spend twenty minutes listening to highlights and analysis on a Sunday afternoon football post game show and you’ll be amazed at how many synonyms for results and success you’ll hear. Athletics is as outcome-oriented as our society can get: you win or you don’t. You do not get a special mention for hard work: “second place = first loser.” Yet, four-time Olympic speed-skating medalist Kristina Groves was interviewed by Duff Gibson on her evolving motivation and what ultimately resulted in her first world championship, and she specifically identifies the turning point in her career as the moment where she stopped identifying ‘the number beside her name’ as an evaluation of her achievement. She includes the observation:
In his TED talk, Daniel Pink offers a perfect analogy on how we might motivate adults in the workforce. We can either approach them with “If you do something cool… I’ll give you $2,500,” or we can try “you probably want to do something cool, let me just get out of your way.” The latter capitalizes on what we are coming to understand about education in so many ways. First, we assume that kids will do well if they can. Second, we understand that providing them with some autonomy to undertake self-directed learning is of key importance in constructing an engaging learning space.
The revolution in education is slowly recognizing that cultivating 21st century thinkers leaves no space for assigning kids numbers as a way of assessing or improving their learning process. It will no doubt prove challenging to convince present social bureaucracy that numeric data will provide little to no help in painting a clear picture of what our future citizens are capable of – this system has been privileged for years. It will be infinitely more time consuming to rely on conversation and interaction to convey student success and needs, however, there is no way that numbers can, in any case, give us the complete picture. We need a future in which people do not associate success or achievement with a quantitative figure but engage in conversation, debate and collaboration about their growth through the process of learning. It is the only way to build the best version of a better world.