Building an Authentic Community of Practice


[1] Grades Make School Less Satisfying, Meaningful, and Engaging

One memory that I have about grades that sticks with me is when I received my final averages at the end of my junior year of high school. Along with a full score of 5 on the AP Biology exam, I also got a 107 average in that class (which was the hardest and most important in our program) and over 100 for the semester overall. This impacted me a lot because of how much I sacrificed to get those grades. My life that year was basically just a cycle of assignments and feedback and review sessions and exams. I genuinely did not have a social life beyond small talk with my classmates and commuting home with one of my friends. Even then—when I was too tired or depressed to talk, everyone knew to avoid me. So it was a stark contrast for all my peers to see me at the end of the year when we got our results. As the weather turned warmer, I was so much lighter and brighter—like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I think people were mainly happy for me because all the work I put in paid off, but I didn’t tell anyone the reason I went from a B/C/D grade type of student all throughout my life to an A+ type of student. It’s because one of my classmates from my freshman year committed suicide in our sophomore year. He was the only one who I felt like was dealing with the same toxic family issues and childhood trauma that I was dealing with. More than that, I saw myself in him because we had such great feelings but didn’t know how to express them in a world that didn’t give us the tools to process them. It felt like we were two birds of a feather. So when I was the only one left, I didn’t know what else to do other than to throw myself into my studies to cope. I told myself that if he couldn’t make it to graduation, I sure as hell would for the both of us. And after getting those soaring sky-high averages in junior year, the year we were told colleges were most likely to base their acceptance decisions on, I knew I made good on my promise to him.

Fast forward to now, I see grades more as just numerical records that help me convince people to let me get to where I want to go. Practically, they are only worth as much as others, like Guttman faculty/staff or potential internship employers, perceive them to be. But just like people probably made assumptions about why I was a top student in high school, they still probably make assumptions about why I’m a top student now. In truth, I could never see a grade as any true representation of my work. I mean—how could it be? Even an A+ is only a 4.0, but does it tell you I went over the minimum wordcount for every assignment? Does it tell you I did extra research to support my arguments in my papers? Does it tell you I mastered the material so well that I could re-teach it to someone else? Does it tell you how much I apply the knowledge I learned in one class to every single other? and embody it in my everyday life? No—because I know for a fact that I could have got the same grade by doing less.

So, I do agree with Alfie Kohn that grades make students less likely to engage deeply with their learning. If I was really being strategic with my time and energy, I would do the least I could to achieve the A because I’m not incentivized to do any more. The only reason I don’t is because, honestly, that’s boring. I love learning and I’m invested in my educational growth, so I ignore the fact that I’m not going to be rewarded for doing more. And it’s been great because I feel like I relate to the world better as a student of the world. I also have more insightful conversations with my professors and I feel like I genuinely bond with them over the topics they love. I seem to always get feedback that I contribute a lot to the advancement of class discussions when I participate. And if their was an educational system without grades, I think I would thrive even more and so would my peers.