One of my favorite things that I learned from teaching a Global and Historical Studies course about China is from the Daoist sage Chuang Tzu. He highlights how a person can be incredibly skilled, and yet if they enter a competition and there is a prize at stake, suddenly their competency is diminished. When we focus on a prize, it divides our attention. Here is what he wrote in his own words:
When an archer is shooting for nothing,
he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle,
he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold,
he goes blind or sees two targets.
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed,
but the prize divides him.
He thinks more of winning than of shooting.
And the need to win drains him of power.
This is definitely true in education as we seek to promote learning using grades as incentives and as gatekeepers. But is there any alternative?
My colleague Bryan Furuness shared some thoughts on a related subject earlier this summer on his blog. First, he noted that the very act of evaluation can undermine creativity. He recognizes that there may not be an alternative. because, as he puts it, “I could ask students to do a certain amount of work and to judge them on whether they’ve completed that work—but completion ain’t engagement, and engagement is what I’m after.” He also asked in an earlier post what the point of creative writing classes is. Here’s an excerpt from there:
A devotional path: I had never thought about a writing practice in those terms, but it resonates with me. It speaks to the way I approach my writing and my teaching. Let me show you some ways to walk this devotional path. Maybe one of these ways will work for you; maybe you’ll find a different way. None of us can say where this path will take any given student, but we can help them learn to walk it.
That sounds nice and all, Bryan, but what’s the point of all that walking? Toward what end?
A fine question. We shouldn’t promise a destination, but we should define a purpose…
Humans are the story-telling animals, as Jonathan Gottschall writes. Learning how to write stories and poems and essays—it’s the most human thing you could be doing. And what is a liberal arts education if not learning how to be more human?
So here’s one answer to the big question. Tentative, raw, and far from the only answer, but hopefully an improvement on the awkward silence of the meeting. Writing is a devotional path. We can help you learn to walk that path for the rest of your life, becoming more human with each step.
Click through to read the rest. Inside Higher Ed likewise drew attention to the potential for focus on grades to be to the detriment of learning. That notion still seems counterintuitive to some – and that is the heart of the problem.
The Chronicle had articles on grades, and “ungrading.” Jesse Stommel has more on that idea in a blog post from last year in which he wrote:
Without much critical examination, teachers accept they have to grade, students accept they have to be graded, students are made to feel like they should care a great deal about grades, and teachers are told they shouldn’t spend much time thinking about the why, when, and whether of grades. Obedience to a system of crude ranking is crafted to feel altruistic, because it’s supposedly fair, saves time, and helps prepare students for the horrors of the “real world.” Conscientious objection is made to seem impossible.
There is a call for papers about literature as vocation that I feel I should share here, given its connection to Bryan’s post. More links related to learning and motivation follow below it!
I feel as though the recent news about New Zealand focusing on wellbeing and happiness rather than wealth is also relevant to this, since our economic pundits often say that only desire for profit and wealth will motivate effort.
Of somewhat related interest, here are a couple of things on gamification and keeping learning fun:
MZac Fitzwalter’s blog is also worth exploring.
Finally, see too Hanna Kim’s thesis on religious themes in World of Warcraft