18 February 2009

- Making the Grade -

The NY Times has an article on grade expectations. Key student quote:
If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.

To which I respond: perhaps you possess only average talent in the topic at hand. I think this is one of the great challenges we face: we as a culture apparently believe that people should be able to excel (rather than simply succeed) through hard work alone. It's a nice idea, with egalitarian roots, and work can in fact get you a long way (all the way to competence and success!), but I wonder if we do in fact want to conflate competency and excellence. For if we fail to make the distinction, merit has no place, and without merit, the choice among the competent is merely political: whoever has the influence (usually the money) will get the nod.

Our culture does have a realm where we make this distinction effortlessly, namely, athletics: everyone who has participated in sports knows that you can work your butt off, do everything the coach tells you to, and yet never be anything more than a mediocre performer. We might extend this analogy to the classroom, taking the teacher to be either a personal trainer or a coach. The teacher has two two primary responsibilities: (a) to facilitate your acquisition of knowledge and the development of your native talent in the area of the course content; and (b) to grade performance with respect to the standards of the discipline (competency) and with respect to your peers. As in sports, there will always be cases where native talent wins out over hard work.

The comparison to athletics is apt in another sense: as in sports, you have to do the work if you want to improve; the coach can tell you what to do, but he or she can't do the work for you.