06/08/2012 05:04 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Grades and Vocation

About six months into my first occupation after college graduation, one morning I realized, "The good news is I do not receive grades anymore." Then quickly I thought, "The bad news is I do not receive grades anymore."

As a teacher, I have long advised against using grades as motivation for learning. Well yes, I suppose it works, but I don't like it that it works. It should not work that it works. Not in the long run. Not really even in the short run.

I know, I know, there are many studies that show the problems schools have when they do away with grades. However, the short and long term effects of that large letter grade on an assignment linger:
  • A student is angry he did not receive the grade he thought he earned, blames the teacher, and drops the online class.
  • A student does research, writes a paper for the teacher, motivated only by grade-point.
  • A graduate is both relieved and somewhat lost without those weekly letter grades.
  • You fill in with you own experiences....

So, why should I be making a case for building trustworthy environments where grading (if an institutional necessity) is penultimate? This is a time when companies advertise systems to detect cheating and plagiarizing, and ever more sophisticated systems for ever more rampant and, therefore, expected cheating.

All the more reason to take a counter-cultural approach. To tie successful completion of course work not to grades but to purpose and vocation. That is different than landing a job (which in itself is uncertain). Vocation, whether being a biologist, a beautician or a banker, is about a sense of identity and clarity of how one wants to make a difference in the world.

Now, of course, after graduation we do still receive "grades." They come under all sorts of names: six month evaluations, bonuses, reprimands. Some are fair and some the I-didn't-deserve-that kind. Senate Republicans again this week blocked debate on pay equity. And cheating is as rampant after graduation as in the classroom. Cynics would say, "Why not prepare people for it?"

But I hold fast to learning towards mutual accountability rather than competition.

Idealism? Naiveté? Hardly. Because I have experienced learning community again this week in a summer one week intensive, just as I have in classes I have been privileged to teach over the decades.

We gathered this past Monday, 20 learners from 11 states. Key is setting a trustworthy environment for us to be different together in a learning community. Speaking ourselves present, bringing all of our gifts, learning to listen with respect, engaging a variety of methods with high expectations. They were to have prepared two assignments before they came. They did. As they shared their work with each other, cheating seemed a strange, irrelevant concept. They learned from each other, gaining skills they would use in vocation.

The first morning we walked together to the library. Here were books on reserve we could invite into our conversations. "Read from these; you make the choices." Some might read a lot, others would skim. No required number of pages. There are varied reading rates and comprehension skills among adults. Each was to bring one author's voice to our mutual conversation. I didn't know when, but already the next morning, three, four, more said, "I read..." Where did this motivation come from? Invitation. Respect. Expectation. Not threat. Not grades.

So the week proceeded. Shared work. Challenge. Higher expectations. "You are not writing papers for me, but for your vocation and each other. I will read and comment on your assignments. I will work very hard, with you. Not at you or for you."

During the week I refrained from asking, "guess-what-I'm thinking-questions," what some people call "discussion" but rather we went deeper and deeper into our joint quest as I helped them weave their varied ideas together.

So the week went. Was it all a dream? No. Were these perfect people? Of course not. We have all sorts of ways to hinder and hurt each other. And they will be tested of course, as they go forth into their work in difficult places. But I believe they will remember not a grade but a communal challenge, and mutual accountability to support them in their lifelong learning and vocation.