Would you give out all As?

What would happen this year if I tossed out all of my rubrics, test scores and grading scales and just granted As to all of my students?

Would my classroom become a utopia, where students — free from the rat-race of chasing grades — would engage in learning for the pure love of it? Or would my students decide to check out? Or divert their attention to other classes, where they still have to earn grades?

A friend recently shared a video of a lecture by Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, who passionately advocates an “All As” approach to grading. “When you give an A, the relationship is transformed,” he says.

Zander’s argument is eloquent, and his ideals are lofty. He required his students at the New England Conservatory to write him a letter, post-dated to the end of the year, explaining why they would deserve the A by then. He wanted them to describe the musicians they would become – and fall in love with that vision of themselves.

In the lecture, he talks about a new theory of education, where the instructor’s job is not to judge how far students fall short but to “awaken possibility” in each of them. All grading is invented, he says, so “we might as well invent something that lights up our life.”

I can see why so many people have watched this video, which was recorded in 2012. It’s exciting to imagine letting go of grading and focusing on learning instead. We know children are inherently curious, and we know that by judging and imposing grades on them, we harm their intrinsic motivation. Psychologists call this the “overjustification effect”.

Our grading mechanisms treat students like B.F. Skinner’s pigeons, simple beings who perform only for rewards. Even the best grading practices, which provide specific feedback to students, have this flaw. Why can’t we treat our students as intelligent, thoughtful people instead, and inspire them rather than bribe them?

We also know that students use grades to compete and tear each other down, rather than focusing on their own growth.

For all of these reasons, I thought about trying something like Zander’s “All As” approach in my journalism class this year. The newspaper editors are an intrinsically motivated group. It is difficult to judge and grade their work anyway, since everyone’s contribution is different.

But something has held me back. For one thing, we have a very clearly defined school-wide grading policy, and “All As” wouldn’t fit. I can’t imagine the public high school that would approve this philosophy.

I also worry about the unintended consequences. Would this really work with any group of high school students? And if so, where would that leave us? Does an A have meaning if it’s given to everyone?

What if all of our school’s teachers jumped on board and gave all As? We would very quickly be dismissed by colleges as a grade-inflating institution, and our students would have to find another way to prove themselves, probably through onerous standardized tests.

Zander’s students are already accomplished musicians, “excited to be there,” he says. His students will face their tests later, when they audition for other schools or orchestras. They know they must work hard to eventually measure up.

Our students do not all have this passion or motivation. If I promised all of my journalism students an A, some would shine. They already exceed my expectations. But I have other students who would take this offer as a reason to nap, Snapchat, do other homework or wander the halls of the school. No worry about grades = no worries at all!

While Zander’s students have vision, maturity and a strong work ethic, my students are still working on developing long-term thinking and planning. They know learning matters, but really they just want decent grades so they can graduate and maybe go to college.

The challenge is to think of a way to do what Zander preaches — free students to want to be the best they can be — without losing the benefits of grading.

The best way we have right now, I think, is to involve students in their own assessment and help them understand that grades are not a “gotcha” or a punishment, but one piece of feedback in how well they are mastering their subject.

Zander’s philosophy is good food for thought. His words pull at the heartstrings and make us reconsider what we are doing when we assign grades. Unfortunately, his solution is not quite the panacea he suggests.

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