You want thinkers. Let us produce them.

I was at a conference recently where the room (about 1000 people from across the business and educational world) were asked what they would like to say to everyone in the room, if they had a few minutes. I thought about this a lot because, at the time, I had half an idea but it wasn’t in a form that would work on that day. A few weeks later, in a group of 100 or so, I was asked a similar question and I managed to come up with something coherent. What follows here is a more extended version of what I said, with relevant context.

If I could say anything to the parents and  future employers of my students, it would be to STOP LOOKING AT GRADES as some meaningful predictor of the future ability of the student. While measures of true competency are useful, the current fine-grained but mostly arbitrary measurements of students, with rabid competitiveness and the artificial divisions between grade bands, do not fulfil this purpose. When an employer demands a GPA of X, there is no guaranteed true measure of depth of understanding, quality of learning or anything real that you can use, except for conformity and an ability to colour inside the lines. Yes, there will be exceptional people with a GPA of X, but there will also be people whose true abilities languished as they focused their energies on achieving that false grail. The best person for your job may be the person who got slightly (or much) lower marks because they were out doing additional tasks that made them the best person.

Please. I waste a lot of my time giving marks when I could be giving far more useful feedback, in an environment where that feedback could be accepted and actual positive change could take place. Instead, if I hand back a 74 with comments, I’ll get arguments about the extra mark to get to 75 rather than discussions of the comments – but don’t blame the student for that attitude. We have created a world in which that kind of behaviour is both encouraged and sensible. It’s because people keep demanding As and Cs to somehow grade and separate people that we still use them. I couldn’t switch my degree over to “Competent/Not Yet Competent” tomorrow because, being frank, we’re not MIT or Stanford and people would assume that all of my students had just scraped by – because that’s how we’re all trained.

If you’re an employer then I realise that it’s very demanding but please, where you can, look at the person wherever you can and ask your industrial bodies that feed back to education to focus on ensuring that we develop competent, thinking individuals who can practice in your profession, without forcing them to become grade-haggling bean counters who would cut a group member’s throat for an A.

If you’re a parent, then I would like to ask you to think about joining that group of parents who don’t ask what happened to that extra 1% when a student brings home a 74 or 84. I’m not going to tell you how to raise your children, it’s none of my business, but I can tell you, from my professional and personal perspective, that it probably won’t achieve what you want. Is your student enjoying the course, getting decent marks and showing a passion and understanding? That’s pretty good and, hopefully, if the educators, the parents and the employers all get it right, then that student can become a happy and fulfilled human being.

Do we want thinkers? Then we have to develop the learning environments in which we have the freedom and capability to let them think. But this means that this nonsense that there is any real difference between a mark of 84 and a mark of 85 has to stop and we need to think about how we develop and recognise true measures of competence and suitability that go beyond a GPA, a percentage or a single letter grade.

You cannot contain the whole of a person in a single number. You shouldn’t write the future of a student on such a flimsy structure.

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