Tuesday, December 11, 2012


My previous post brought up the subject of hand-holding and the problem of students who want or expect to be walked through their assignments.

In our own household, I confess we do a great deal of hand-holding, especially with Older Daughter (now in her first year of high school at Friends Omphalos.)  She needs a lot of help to get through her assignments, which often look like this:  "Here's a whole bunch of material.  Figure it out."  Typically, she has no idea how to begin these projects, and the prospect fills her with dread and anxiety.

When Older Daughter was younger, she made a bunch of claymation videos.  Did I hold her hand?  Not a bit of it -- I got her some modelling clay, lent her my camera and tripod, and let her have at it.  Did we have to hold her hand to get her to read Harry Potter, or watch Doctor Who?  No.

It seems to me the missing link is intrinsic motivation.  If Older Daughter is genuinely interested in something, she tackles it head-on, no problem.  If it's an assignment from school, designed and imposed by the teacher, with the looming threat of grades, she balks at the starting gate.

Teachers need to recognize the powerful demotivating effects of assignments and grades.  It's not reasonable to ask students to behave as if they're intrinsically motivated while you're wielding the grade book.

As Alfie Kohn, whom I agree with sometimes, says here:  Education's Rotten Apples:
Grades almost always have a detrimental effect on how well students learn and how interested they are in the topic they're learning.
I count myself lucky that in both my teaching efforts this year, tutoring math and teaching catechism class, I don't give grades.  


  1. I think if the assignment (for adults) is approached from the perspective of being creative, i.e. the teacher says: The topic is X, make a 15 minute presentation about X however you would like...be it movie, lecture, poem, skit, powerpoint etc....
    then having to learn imovie is not an unreasonable task to learn. The more creative the better. Have the class decide who gets the point across the best. That's a true measure of success. Have the class give feedback on how a presentation could have been better..people learn best this way.

    I'm a big Alfie Kohn fan, and I don't think he'd have a problem with that kind of assignment.

    But to prescribe a task, tell the learner how they are to learn it and then grade them on how well your prescribed method was learned gives the learner nothing, and tells the master (teacher) only whether the method was adhered to. Didn't the Brits call their teachers Teaching Masters in the old days?

  2. As a teacher (of law students) who has no choice but to give grades (and on a curve, no less), I'm envious of any teacher who does not have to.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say it's about intrinsic motivation. The more tightly you control what kids have to do, the less anything they do can be a product of intrinsic motivation. You can't instruct someone to be intrinsically motivated. But when they have to choose between control and cultivating intrinsic motivation, schools choose control every time.

  3. And there are certainly small things teachers could do to help keep kids motivated. My DD just did a 5th grade social studies project on Native Americans. Did she get to choose what tribe she would research? Nope, teacher assigned it. Why not put all the tribes up with 1 unique feature and let the kids pick? Same thing last year with a big group book project. The teacher assigned a book to each kid. Is it really that much more work to let the kids have some say in what they learn? So frustrating to watch.

  4. I agree that grades and rigid assignments are lousy, especially when there's never anything else on offer. What I'm particularly grateful for in your attitude is the clarity with which you diagnose a teacher's demand that "students behave as if they're intrinsically motivated while you're wielding the grade book." This is where the deep dishonesty and mistreatment set in, it seems to me. It's one thing to have an authoritarian educational system, but it's far worse to grade them on whether they can pretend to be creative and free-spirited while they're fulfilling someone else's expectations.