The Costs of Overemphasizing Acheivement

Kohn, A. (2004). The costs of overemphasizing achievement. In What does it mean to be well educated?: And more essays on standards, grading and other follies (pp. 28-37). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

In this essay, Kohn discusses the drawbacks of focusing on assessment, suggesting that teachers/administrators/parents whose focus is the score or grade at the end teach our students to be focused on the end result not the process by which they arrived at the end result. Under the tutelage of the aforementioned, students equate success with good grades and failure with bad grades, stunting their ability to use the failure as a springboard into further learning.

As teachers, we’re setting students up to be afraid of failure. If a student’s main focus is passing the test, is looking for a grade, is thinking about the final product and not the steps it takes to get there, then they miss out on what learning really is: thinking.

Ayn Grubb said, in the AP Summer Institute I attended in June, that “The learning happens in the struggle.” The problem is that our students are afraid of struggle. With their frequent query, “Is this right?” or the panic attacks they have if they’re told “There isn’t a wrong answer, just an unsupported one,” (which is usually followed by “Is this right, then?”) the teachers who aren’t encouraging this type of behavior can see how the age of assessment is effecting today’s learners. These students don’t see a “wrong” answer as useful information–one where they can figure out where they went wrong and figure out how to fix it (Kohn, 2004, p. 34). Instead, they believe themselves not to be smart enough, or have enough ability to be successful.

Teachers encourage students to desire success, either by the metaphorical carrot of a grade or by choosing topics that interest students. But teachers have commented to me that when students are given choice, they will do enough to get themselves the grade they want, and nothing more. “School officials and reformers complain about how kids today take the easy way out . . . while simultaneously creating an emphasis on performance and results that leads predictably to that very outcome” (Kohn, 2004, p. 33). If all students have to do is bubble in the right answer, one that is chosen with very little thought, then they’re being conditioned to continue this behavior.

Students need to be taught how to deal with failure so they don’t fall apart when they fail. Building in time for reflection on the projects/assignments they’re asked to complete could help this. Guide students to be metacognitive. Take the focus away from grades and put it on the process. Easier said than done.

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