Chase Mielke

Author. Speaker. Well-Being Expert.

Going beyond grades: Why we HAVE to do better.

What do you think is the lowest G.P.A. I need in order to get into a good retirement home — one of those fancy ones with never-ending soft serve ice cream and Jeopardy tournaments in the common area?  How many gold stars do you think I need in order say, “I’m happy”?  Oooh, most importantly, do you think if I re-take my ACT and get 2 points higher I can finally say I have purpose in the world?

Surely, these are the questions that keep teenagers angsty. There can be no other explanation.

We live in an educational climate that focuses primarily — some would say obsessively — on numbers and letters, rankings and standings.  We say it’s for results. And it’s true. One can see results through numbers. But it’s time to argue for different results. It’s time to argue for a system that puts the value and benefit of the learner first. And, along the way, it’s time to argue that we can do more as teachers, parents, and citizens to create contexts, instituations, and relationships that hone in on the innate factors that motivate learners to excel.

First, we have to understand that motivation is not a dichotomy. It is not just : (a.) I’m motivated or (b.) I’m not motivated. I’ve expressed this view in previous posts, but now let’s look further.

Motivation is a continuum. If we want our students to reach their maximum potential, we have to understand each level of motivation — not just what each is but how we, as teachers, policy makers, citizens, and parents, are often stifling student potential by only focusing on the lowest levels of motivation.

Let’s consider motivation along this continuum**:

Level 0: Amotivation (Not doing it!)


Level 1: Reward/Punishment (I’ll only do it if ______, or to avoid ______)

Level 2: Guilt/Impress (I like you . . . so I’ll do it)

Level 3: Value/Benefit (I’ll do it because it will help me in some way)

Level 4: Identify (I’ll do this because it represents who I am)


Level 5: Pure Enjoyment (I’m in the flow when I do this)

I’ve discussed some of the major factors that lead to amotivation in past posts. Let’s look at the next level, the lowest end of extrinsic motivation: Level 1 — what it is, why it matters, and what to do with it.


 Reward/punishment motivation involves using something external — either a tangible pleasure booster or a psychological (or physical) pain booster — to increase action.  We humans are obsessively occupied by motivating to this level.  Get ready because this, my beautiful people, is where most of our effort in education ends (Yep, we just got to Level 1 and we’re already done).

Real talk: Much of education puts external reward as the end of the process, the main event, rather than the means to a fulfilling end.  When a student acts just to get a grade, it is because this is often our society’s expectation; We — teachers, administrators, parents, citizens — often do not think to look beyond the grades.  Jill got an “A”? Sweet. Good job, Jill, you little smarty.  We have 60% of our students taking A.P. classes?  We are gettin’ it done.  School A ranked higher on the state tests than School B? That’s where my kid is going next fall.

Pause: Curmudgeon the Critic is probably charged and ready to rally some counters at this moment, so let’s go there now. There will be arguments such as, “What the heck do you want? Mushy-gushy high-fives for good work? Sorry pansy-man, the real world doesn’t work that way. People work for money and businesses function off tangible rewards!”

We know.

No one is saying rewards are inherently bad. Or good. Rewards motivate. But here’s the issue: Rewards only motivate so long as the rewards remain there.  The real problem is that our first and last resort is to dangle rewards in the context.  Get the kid to pass with a B- and call it a good day’s work.  But imagine if we remove the reward.  If you made every assignment and task in your classroom optional, would your students still do it? Doubt it.  They may have if we hadn’t killed off their intrinsic drive for learning years ago by making it all about the points, and scores, and grades.

That reward/punishment motivation is of detriment to our society became even clearer to me just today.  When asking students for feedback about teaching style preferences, one student remarked, “I’d rather have teachers who tell us what’s on the tests, rather than teaching us life skills stuff.”  No exaggeration.  Direct quotation.  I don’t blame the student.  I blame the educational context in which he lives.

The other thing we have to realize is that our rewards only motivate so long as the person gives a flip about the reward. We wonder why some learners don’t push themselves in school.  And yet, we only point out value in terms of getting good grades to “go to college.” Many of them could care less about the reward — or the other factors of amotivation have already been set. It’s hard to hear, “Getting at least a B in this class will help you get to college” when getting my next meal is of more immediate relevance. In truth, “What Students Really Need to Hear,” was meant for the students who stopped caring about the grades years ago.  It was for the students who need to know that school can provide benefits beyond the grades.

Reward/Punishment motivation is not enough.  And, our obsession with it is killing true life-long learning.

Now, it’s absurd to think that simply stripping incentives, grades, and measurements is the solution.  Effectively doing so would require an entire overhaul of every school from K through College.  Experience tells me it’s hard enough to get schools to agree upon the color of grass (Has anyone considered the color-blind guy’s view!?), let alone cultural changes.

This doesn’t mean that all is lost though.  We can start by asking better of ourselves, no matter where we fit in educating others.  Why are we really teaching or valuing item X?  What matters most? And, are we willing to take the risk to teach what matters in the face of a system that promotes otherwise?

We can even start by considering how our own language sends a message to young learners about what matters in education.

When a parent asks, “How can my student get a better grade?” the wrong question has been asked.

When a teacher says, “You are smart enough to get at least a B,” the wrong message has been sent.

When a news outlet ranks schools on rigor based on A.P. enrollments, without ever stepping foot in the building, the wrong message has been sent.

How about, “What can my student do in your class to be more prepared for a good career?”  How about, “You are smart enough to master this concept and truly own this knowledge — knowledge that no one can ever take from you for the rest of your life”?  What about promoting schools that help students cultivate their passions and provide them unique opportunities to pursue them?

How can go beyond the lowest level in education?

— How do we help students find their own value in building resilience? Learning new content? Tackling difficult problems?

— How do we help them identify their passions and talents early (and not just in STEM), mentor them to find opportunities, and then get out of their way?

— How do we create curricula that looks beyond what will get us better test scores?

— How can we better be honest with ourselves about what matters and whether our actions match our values?

These are the questions to which we need answers.  These are the answers that need every parent, teacher, and citizen’s effort.  It’s time to do better. Let’s start by asking better of ourselves before asking better of others.

** These levels of motivation are derived from Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s self-determination theory.  Get your research on at


23 responses to “Going beyond grades: Why we HAVE to do better.”

  1. This raises a lot of great questions and observations. I agree that the idea of reward and punishment seems incompatible with higher learning.

    Basically, it seems we are conditioned to be surface learners or strategic learners, and go about asking small questions.

  2. Innate motivation (level 4 and 5) is also heavily reliant on self discipline which unfortunate is difficult to teach and need to be nurtured during early stages of learning. Being a teacher of adults, I find that those with more self control tend to be more motivated because they discipline themselves to learn, to make the effort to be actively involved and to better themselves. Great post and lots of points for thought.

  3. You have smashed it out of the park on this one.

    The problem is that we (teachers, students, parents, politicians etc.) often ask completely the wrong questions about education, and accordingly measure it in entirely inappropriate ways.

    A person I can think of who has put this more eloquently than I can is Alain de Botton in his commentary on Montaigne’s thoughts on the classical emphases of education:

    “If offered a choice, Montaigne would in the end perhaps not have opted to live as a goat–but only just. Cicero had presented the benevolent picture of reason. Sixteen centuries later, it was for Montaigne to introduce the adverse:

    To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads.

    –the biggest blockheads of all being philosophers like Cicero who had never suspected they might even be such things. Misplaced confidence in reason was the well-spring of idiocy–and, indirectly, also of inadequacy.”

    I won’t go as far as to say that faith placed in reason is misplaced, but there is a certain truth to Montaigne’s kick against the prick on what his contemporaries valued in an education. Basically, Montaigne was profoundly aware that many of the most educated people of his day were thoroughly miserable – they had learned very little about how to live a good life or to experience contentment in what they had or could realistically achieve.

    The thing is that the very same problem continues to exist in modernity for an intriguingly different reason – that the pendulum of the educational paradigm has swung too far from its classical roots. Where in the past they cared little for the material utility of what they learned – with an education being more of a signal of social capital than anything else – we have now become utterly obsessed this material unity.

    Every contemporary educational choice seems to be framed in terms of useful skills at work, career options and anticipated improvements in monetary gains and governments chomp at the bit to burst ‘obscure thought bubbles’ in research institutions. We have let the efficient, free-market ideologies of capitalist economics invade considerably too far into our educational and academic systems; we have reduced an education to an act of allocation of resources to maximise economic success. Maximising allocation of resources requires continual measurement and benchmarking, and accordingly students are reduced to disinterested hoop-jumpers and box-tickers. Perhaps a swing back toward knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and a focus on human capital rather than monetary capital, may even things out.

    Of course I am not saying that work skills or preparing for one’s profession should be abandoned in education; I just think that it is hopelessly narrow-minded and dehumanising to so decidedly slant an education in that direction. The gaining of wisdom – entertaining philosophical questions about ‘the good life’, questioning widely-held values, learning the truth of one’s self and one’s limitations – should not be excluded from the curriculum for being simply too difficult to measure and benchmark.

  4. Reblogged this on Circling the answer and commented:
    Loooooove this! Honestly and truly, exactly how I feel about the education system we have now. Since I’m a student, I hear this grade-focused crap constantly. People memorizing content to regurgitate it onto a test or simply get through the class. I cannot learn that way. If it doesn’t make sense to me conceptually, I’m almost lost. I wish it would stop in high school but it definitely apparent all through college. Which, fair enough, we do have to take classes that, let’s be real, we could care less about (liberal learning) so survival is really all that matters. But how are students still feeling this way in their major classes?? This is the stuff that you are saying you would like to do for the rest of your life, God-willing. I think it’s kinda automatic. And professors are getting increasingly upset about it. I feel sorrier for the professors more than I do my fellow students. I suggest trade schools/apprenticeships as a possible solution.

  5. I am a champion of Waldorf Education for many, many reasons and for many years. As a child psychologist, I have never seen a better approach to learning. The first 8 grades there are no grades or minimal grades. Thereafter, purely for college admissions, the students get grades but the GPA is deemphasized. My niece attended 12 years of Waldorf, got into an ivy league school and is now a PhD genetics researcher. Waldorf works, with little or no pressure and a Finnish-style curriculum and individual approach to the child. I liked your post!

  6. Chase,

    You have hit upon something which has plagued our culture from the shadows for decades. Education is no longer about actually educating students; rather, it is about getting the next wave of young people out of the school system and into the voting system with as little true, valuable knowledge as possible. Forcing conformity by teaching students WHAT to think instead of HOW to think is blatantly antithetical to a society where pluralism is purported to be the hallmark of progress. Regurgitation is not equivalent to education, and motivating students with the false idol of higher grades does nothing to kindle the fires of intellectual passion that drove the great minds and great exploits of past ages.

    Kudos for telling it like it is! We need more teachers like you!

  7. Because the really important questions cannot be objectively answered e.g. how prepared is one for the real world?, we choose a meaningless system of numbers and letters to categorise everyone and make it look like an A student is more intelligent than a B student, when really, they may or may not be future successes; they’re just better at playing the system – do as you’re told, and rote-learn.

  8. Great thinking and conversation prompting questions. I agree, grades/GPA, High Stakes Testing and Punitive Mindset is not helping the quest to create intrinsically motivated learners. I believe helping kids think beyond the classroom requires teachers willing to get out of the classroom. Not to yet another academically focused PD but into industries that reflect the use of their content area. CTE (Career and Technical Education) is the only teacher prep program that requires a certain number of hours in industry in the teachers content area for full certification. General Education Teachers tend to go from High School Prep classrooms to College classrooms then back into Elementary or Secondary classrooms. Teaching “outside the walls” is difficult if one hasn’t been there! And being there doesn’t mean as a consumer….. Another opportunity to engage students is actually allowing students to use Career Exploration and Planning systems available. The current mindset in many schools is… This too can wait…. academics first …. to the total loss of student engagement :/

  9. I totally agree with what you said. However, where can some necessary societal values be cohesively woven into your proposed change in system? “Meritocracy” and “No one owes you a living” are just a few examples.

  10. Well, I like your post. Did not finish it because I am way to self absorbed but it reminded me of a post I did about Martin Luther King Jr. Now he was not talking about education, well not in this sense. But he was talking about learning a new way of doing things.

    The interesting thing he quotes another person who talks about doing things for different reasons. And in this the similarity is quite striking.

    In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote, in Progress and Poverty:

    “The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature, and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for their own sake, and not that they may get more to eat or drink, or wear, or display. In a state of society where want is abolished, work of this sort could be enormously increased.”

    So we now go from today in 2014 to Martin Luther Kings last book somewhere in the 60s and then back to 1879 and we all say that what is more important is to work, whether this is school, home, or business at what we believe in, what we love, what motivates to achieve our best.

    If we all could do this what a splendid place it would be. One might even call it Paradise.

    Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much. Smile!

  11. Reblogged this on abyhernandez and commented:
    Exactly my thoughts about growing up in an educational system where grades seem to be the core of everything! But now that I am teaching in a progressive school, I began to have a new perspective about education – that real learning goes beyond having high grades! I say that it is not bad to have a grading system, but focusing too much on it makes us miss out more important things to learn. Like how can use what I learned after I graduate, and most importantly, did I have fun learning about it?
    Learning does not need to be like a prison cell where you are just counting the days to receive your sentence. Learning is supposed to be an experience to be savored as you take each step to enlightenment. 🙂

  12. This is fantastic! I agree with this on so many levels! It is incredibly difficult to get students to care beyond the grades. I am also wondering how the literature we use in our English class might be changed as a way to help generate a shift. What might happen if we chose to read books that students were interested in such as young adult literature, then discussed them and looked at the analysis pieces we are always having to go over? Perhaps students would be able to read because it was interesting, or have intelligent dialogue because it mattered to their lives. It really should be about educating the whole person, instead of just the test-taking part, too. Thank you for this!

  13. I found your site from your article on ‘What Students Really Need To Hear’. I decided to read something else, and I am glad I clicked on this one. I couldn’t agree more with this, and have never read an article that is so in tune with what I have experienced at college.

    TL;DR – It is disgusting how a unit on graphic design can affect my future by lowering my grade, so I cannot study at a University to pursue my dream of becoming a programmer.

    So, I live in the UK. College is one of the choices, like Sixth Form or an apprenticeship. I did my first year of Sixth Form and hated it. It was a means to an end. I was doing subjects I hated because I needed those grades to get into the University I wanted to get into. I am not afraid to say this, but I finished that year with 3 straight Us.

    I have not yet came to the decision whether this an excuse or the truth, but I have seen so many people get to where I want to be without studying. I am interested in game development, and have seen so many indie developers make a life for themselves from quitting school and focus on their passion.

    I know that I could do so much more things at home, things that would make me money from the beginning, things that I would enjoy, things that I would love to get up in the morning for. Instead, I drag myself out of bed, get on a bus and go to Sixth Form or college.

    College is better than Sixth Form. I have so many more friend, but grades are still the most important thing. I know I need 3 Distinctions to get into the same University that I was aiming for when I was doing A Levels. I know I need to get Distinctions in every single coursework I do to achieve this.

    Last week, all of us complained about how we hadn’t been taught everything for the coursework, when we had learnt so much over the past few weeks. Some of the information we were being taught was useful, some it wasn’t. Some of the things we did for the coursework, we probably won’t need to use in life again.

    I have potentially lost marks because I didn’t say why one would use one graphic over another, and displaying all of the stats like bit depth, resolution, etc. As far as I know, all of us there are for programming or hardware, not graphics. Still, we have to do it to get the grades, to pursue what we want to do.

    If I was to fail that unit, a unit which was nothing to do with my future career, it could stop it dead. I could potentially not make it into my dream University because I failed a course that has nothing to do with my career choice. How is that allowed to happen?

    The thing is if I was to explain that to the University, they wouldn’t care. They will look at the grades and say yes, no, or maybe. If it is a maybe, they will look at my GCSE grades, how much extra curriculum stuff I have done. Same with an employer, in most cases. It is disgusting how everything is determined by letters or numbers which may have been affected by units that are not part of our future.

    I understand from reading your other post that these are tests, this information is not the main event. However, it is a shame how it can dictate my future.

    (Sorry about the ramble, but it is just passed 11pm.)

  14. The author says rewards are not inherently bad. May I suggest he read “Punished by Rewards,” by Alfie Kohn. This book states how damaging reward really are in education, parenting and society at large. This book is an excellent read for those who want to embrace real change.

  15. When I teach writing courses, I always ask my students a question in the first day or two of the term: What do you want out of this class? 90% will say “An A or a B.” That’s no surprise. But what baffles me is what happens next. When I say, “No, that’s just a by-product of what you do and what you learn in the class. What do you want to get out of the class?” Then the majority of students just stare at me like I’m speaking in an alien tongue. I truly don’t think it occurs to them to ask, “what skills do I want to foster in this place? What new ways of thinking and questioning do I want to develop?” When you open up that conversation, many of them do become more animated and really present in the classroom, but you have to continually refocus on that.
    And, of course, you have to put your money where your mouth is and teach as if you believe it really is about the process, not the by-product. Sometimes that means refocusing yourself at regular intervals too.

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