Saturday, October 6, 2012

More Tough memes: grading students for “character”

Of all the chains of non-sequiturs emerging out of the enormous buzz surrounding Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the most ridiculous one appears in the latest of many David Brooks columns on the importance of character (“motivation, self-control and resilience”).

The chain of non-sequiturs goes like this:

“An array of psychological researchers have taught us that motivation, self-control and resilience are together as important as raw I.Q. and are probably more malleable.” (From the column itself.)
Motivation, self-control and resilience are more important and malleable than academic skills (Academic skills—literacy, numeracy, etc.--don’t equal "raw" I.Q. scores and are highly important and highly malleable.)
Motivation, self-control and resilience can be taught in the public school classroom. (Malleability doesn’t mean teachability in the classroom; as Brooks himself notes earlier in the column, self-control and resilience depend primarily on the presence or absence of childhood stresses and trauma in the home.)
Students should receive grades for motivation, self-control and resilience. (Importance and malleability don’t justify grading; should students also be graded for how much junk food they eat or how much time they spend playing computer games and watching TV?).

Brooks notes, with approval, that “Some schools give two sets of grades — one for academic work and one for deportment.” He does not explain why this is a good idea. And, interestingly, neither do any of those who published (exclusively enthusiastic) letters in response to Brook’s column.

Perhaps this detail in Brooks’ column escaped them. Or perhaps this chain of non-sequiturs is part of a that broader meme on “whole child” education that has been mindlessly replicating itself within American society for generations.


AmyP said...

It's established practice to give quite a number of deportment grades for things like respect for adults, respect for fellow students, organization, neatness, etc.

I don't see why you'd need a separate grade for "grit," self-control, and motivation, as those are the characteristic that are already on view when a child shows up at school with their homework done and ready to work all day. Of course, it's hard to draw the line between where the kid's grit ends and mom and dad's grit begins.

Basically, these new insights about "grit" just mean giving the same kids two sets of bad grades for the same problems. For good or ill, it is certainly not the case that current academic grading is just evaluating raw intelligence--it's much more evaluating compliance, diligence and the ability to deal with frustration and boredom.

Actually, now that I think of it, Brooks has it backwards. Maybe we need to introduce some grades just for raw intelligence.

Anonymous said...

You've made a good distinction. Grading on character should be for behaviors that are within the child's control, at least in principle: respect, cooperation, at least an acceptable level of perseverance, etc. Motivation is to some extent inborn, and to some extent home-generated. Let's leave that one out. Flexibility, the same. While it's true that the characterristics we grade children on in the "deportment" category, which has been with us forever, are somewhaet compliance-oriented, that's not a reason to reject the idea. Compliance IS important in a group setting, and being able to comply (whether one chooses to comply or not, in later life) is important to school success. "Grit" is just another word for persistence; it can be modeled, it can be rewarded, and it can be encouraged, but I see no reason to award a grade for "grit."