What happens if you consistently punish someone for engaging in a particular practice? Most of us assume that it will get them to stop. Right? So, why have we developed an educational system that punishes millions of children for learning?
Because all capabilities are distributed in the population as “bell curves,” half of all children inevitably will be in the bottom half of their class. Most of these students will consistently receive grades that reflect poor performance relative to other students, primarily because (for a variety of reasons) they learn more slowly than their age mates. Young students tend to understand poor grades as punishments for poor performance or evidence of stupidity. The occasional low grade that is clearly attached to a lack of effort can act as an incentive to try harder. But consistently low grades with no hope of improvement teach students that learning is bad, because no matter how hard they try, it leads to punishment. I call this “bottom of the class syndrome.”
Clearly “learning is bad” is not the message teachers mean to send. They expect the punishment of a low grade to motivate students and their parents to try harder, and this is likely to work for many of the students in the upper half of the class. But it is not likely to work for kids in the bottom half of the class, because most of them are consistently slower learners. Most students in the bottom half of the class need more time and must make more effort to learn concepts and skills than students in the upper half of the class. They can’t afford to dislike learning; even more than students in the top of the class, they must retain their inborn love of learning to have any hope of success over the long term.
As long as we award scores that rank students, about half of those students will be vulnerable to “bottom of the class syndrome.” Society will lose many of them as learners, and their life choices and contributions will be unnecessarily restricted.
My colleagues and I have been working on this problem for many years. The solution we offer requires sophisticated ways of thinking about learning and motivation as well as new tools for evaluating learning—tools that don’t compare students, but allow each of them to develop on their own timeline. And it requires that we systematically study how students learn every single skill or concept we teach, so we know what every score on every assessment really means—in terms of what a given student understands and what he or she is likely to benefit from learning next. It’s hard work, but we’ve learned how to do it. Humans have tackled much more challenging problems. All we need is the will to ensure that every child has an opportunity to realize his or her potential, the patience to do the work, good people to carry the work forward, and a little thing called funding.