The Learning Paradox (MS Investigative Journalism Piece)

Recently, middle school students have had to conduct and write an investigative piece for their English class. PantherNation has decided to highlight some of the articles in order to showcase the writing prowess of ISB’s middle schoolers. 

In this piece, Chris Kye investigates the culture behind grades, focusing on the grading system here at ISB, in his article The Learning Paradox.

The Learning Paradox


The Dilemma

Seoul International School is widely regarded as one of the most academically talented schools in Asia. It is well known in the region for sending graduates to top-ranking schools all over the world each year. Upon hearing this fact, one would expect skillful teachers or high standards, but such factors actually have surprisingly small significance. From my two years of experience at the school, I have deduced that SIS’s academic prowess mostly results from the students’ extreme obsession over grades. The one thing students value over almost all else, are the numbers on their report cards. The typical morning consists of last-minute studying and comparing notes. The most frequently asked question in the hallways is “What grade did you get?” Competition defines the social structure on campus. At first, it had seemed that such an environment would make great motivation for learning. After a few months however, I had realized that the desire to achieve high grades, and the desire to actually learn at the highest level possible are essentially opposites. A grade-driven learning environment did nothing to help the actual learning itself.

When I had transferred to the International School of Bangkok, however, I was faced with a rather unique grading philosophy. I had discovered that the middle school uses the standards-based system, with a goal to shift the focus from the grade itself to active feedback on learning and improvement. The method replaced the traditional letters and percentage markings to a statement related to the attainment of certain learning standards. “Grades” would be expressed as developing, approaching, meeting, or excelling. I had thought this had potential to incite a major movement in learning, to create a society of self-motivated and enthusiastic students in which grades have little power. However, I had discovered that the reality is much less flattering. The focus on grades is no less than any other school. The hallways still ring with the voices of kids exchanging grades on recent assignments. Parents and students alike scratch their heads wondering if a “M” would be a “B” or a C” in the letter-grade language they are so familiar with. To make matters worse, a different grading scheme is used in the high school, which adds to the confusion.

The standards-based grading system has all the right goals in mind. But is it really effective? And is it really the right choice for the middle school here at ISB?

                                      A Brief History of Grades

           Picture1 To answer such questions, one must first familiarize themselves with the problem itself: grades. Schools across the world use several different grading systems. Countless methods exist today, such as mastery grading, “pass or fail” grading, or narrative grading. However, the three most common systems used by schools are the letter grade, percentage grade, and standards-based grading.

            Although it’s hard to imagine a time without grades in school, such a system had existed, and not very long ago. From the most primitive of times to the 19th century, the educational system had been based heavily around mentorship. Teachers developed a close relationship with each of the students, and personally monitored their individual progress. They would guide each student through the given material until they were satisfied with their students’ understanding. When a student graduated, the one thing they could boast about was not their GPA or the name of their college, but their teachers.

However, William Farish, a tutor at Cambridge University, changed all this by introducing the revolutionary academic grade. He had come up with a method that minimized effort on his behalf but still communicated learning results to students. Instead of reporting on each student individually, he assigned a “grade” to each student using a simple representation. This had several negative effects. They diminished students’ curiosity and enthusiasm as their focus shifted from learning content to grades. The nature of Farish’s grades forced students to adapt to one type of learning and discouraged individuality.

The two most common type of Farish’s grades is the letter-grade and the percentage grade. Both systems use a scale from 1 to 100 and are closely related. The letter grade simply translates the percentage grade into 6 different letters; A, B, C, D, and F; with Picture1pluses and minuses to indicate variation between grades. These letters and numbers are a representation of students’ performance compared to a given criteria. They revolve around students’ performance on tests and projects. Traditionally, all elements of students’ school performance are summarized into one grade.

All of these methods can be divided into two groups: formative and summative. Formative grades are used to monitor students’ learning throughout the course. They help students identify their individual weaknesses and strengths, and areas to work on. These grades are recorded in the gradebook, but they have little or no effect on the final grade. Summative grades are used to evaluate students’ learning. They are often relatively large-scale tests and projects. The two grades combined give students a more detailed overall view of their progress and performance.The standards-based grading system is rather different. This method measures performance not to numbers but directly to standards which students are expected to meet. The state or the school may decide these standards. The grades are given in different expressions. This system focuses on a process of development and attainment of the learning goals of each school’s standards.

There is a fundamental issue with traditional grading systems such as the letter-grade and the percentage-grade. These systems fail in their purpose, because a student’s learning simply cannot be summarized into a single representation, whether it is a number or a letter. It is too complex; countless factors, including curiosity and knowledge, must be taken into account. But because this type of system has been around for such a long time, it has become accepted as the norm. Parents and educators prefer these methods for the sole reason of simplicity.

Here at ISB

            The middle school of the International School of Bangkok uses a unique form of the standards-based grading system. According to Cindy Plantecoste, the Middle School Dean of Academics, the implementation of this system had been based around two main points. The first point was to shift the focus from extrinsic motivators such as the letter grade to specific feedback in order to improve as a learner. It had been observed that students were focusing their energy too much on grades, when grades are supposed to be a minor and secondary element of education; grades are simply a simplified representation of a student’s learning progress. But when the focus is on the representation, and not the content itself, a problem is created.

Part of this problem is that the focus on a grade creates a fixed mindset in which the grade comes before the learning. “We don’t want students to think, ‘I won’t try this course because it would have a negative impact on my GPA.’ We want them to think, ‘I’ve never tried this before, so I’ll try it. If I don’t do well, it’s ok. I’ll just try my best,’” said Mrs. Plantecoste. She had also mentioned that overemphasis on grades as a type of reward creates a motivation system is ineffective in education. Students who are motivated by a reward in the form of a grade, consequently associating learning as a task required to attain that reward contradicts the essence of education itself. “We want kids to be self-motivated, from the inside. We want them to feel a genuine interest and passion in their studies, as opposed to getting a reward, like a sticker chart in a classroom,” she said.

The second component the system is based around is the separation of the attainment of learning goals and standards from the behaviors, habits, and attitudes of learning. Traditionally, the scores for a final exam and the number of tardies both impacted the same conclusive grade. All such factors were summarized, condensed, and displayed into a number or a letter. The standards-based system, however, would, theoretically, be more specific in feedback and areas of improvement. “We want to be able to show students learning feedback around the acquisition of certain content, knowledge, skills and understanding as opposed to saying math—B!” stated the Dean.


The high school, however, uses a different method: the letter grade. However, the version used in ISB’s high school is rather different from the traditional letter grade. As is in the middle school, grading is broken down into specific components of the learning process. These are broadly divided into two categories: academic achievement and the habits and attitudes of learning. In the academic achievement section, formative grades typically make up 15% to 30% of the final grade, while summative assessments take up about 70%, including semester examinations. Teachers attempt to move away from the basis of the letter grade by relating to criterion-referenced standards, which are to be determined by level-specific requirements.

Despite these efforts, the nature of the letter grade tempts students to focus on the simplified letter itself. Yes, there appears to be a semi-effective system in the high school that differs from original grading systems in the way students are encouraged to focus on more specific feedback. But when the first thing that students see in the gradebook is a single letter for each subject, their natural instincts force them to become fixated on it.

                                                Idealism vs Realism

Picture1In an ideal world, the standards-based grading system would solve several of the issues with modern education. In reality, however, the use of this system at this stage does more harm than good. One of the key components of this system is to shift students’ main focus in school from grades to learning itself. This is a very justified and necessary change. Students of today have an increasingly high focus on grades. Joseph Holtgrieve, the director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University, stated, “When the goal is to be smart, the formula is reduced to maximizing grades while minimizing effort. When the goal is to learn, the formula becomes about maximizing learning while optimizing effort.”

Of course, there are students who simply do not care about their grades or learning at all. In fact, the amount of such students has actually increased after the implementation of the standards-based grading. Mr. Huttner had claimed he saw a general decline in student’s effort from the original letter-grade system to the new standards-based system. This is only to be expected. The one major source of motivation students had had back then was the extrinsic grade. Now, students have no motivation at all.In this area, however, the application of this system has utterly failed. Even without the pressure of A’s, B’s, and F’s, learning is no more highly valued than before. As stated by Donald Huttner, an experienced teacher at ISB, “Students are still worried about the grade, and not necessarily the learning that they’re doing to try and achieve the grade.” When a student sees a M on his gradebook, he doesn’t think, “I’ve been meeting the standards that my teachers set for this course. How can I excel and demonstrate my understanding at an even higher level?” What he sees is an M, and no more. This is how the majority of students process their grades. Without even realizing it themselves, they equate E’s and M’s to traditional methods of grading, such as A’s and B’s by giving each letter a value. There are no longer A-students and B-students at the middle school in ISB. There still are, however, E-students and M-students.

And students have ample reason to focus on grades so much. In today’s education system, grades have an absurdly high amount of power. For many, GPA defines life in high school. How can it not, when it is the most influential aspect of college acceptance? The average high school GPA of freshman at Harvard University last year was 4.04 on a 4.0 scale. If there’s anything students take away from this fact, it’s that respectable grades get you to respectable universities. According to a survey conducted in ISB’s high school, students here feel pressured to achieve in the area of GPA. One student had responded, “There’s definitely this feeling that having a higher GPA will ensure a better social standing for you. This comes from your peers, your parents and your teachers. I think having a high GPA means you’ll be more respected.” Grades have become a type of social currency in schools across the world. In too many schools, students with the highest grades are almost revered. The Dean of Academics encourages students “not to think GPA comes before learning. If they want to try a course, they should, without worrying about its impact on GPA.” But how can they, when GPA has such a large impact?

 “Focusing on learning creates a direct relationship between input and outcome: the more effort they invest, the greater the opportunity to learn.”

– Joseph Holtgrieve

The aim to shift students’ focus from grades to learning is an extremely difficult goal to accomplish. The problem of the grade has existed almost since the very beginning of modern education. Hence, it cannot be solved by a single action, such as changing the grading system. ISB does claim it takes numerous measures to evoke this change, but the truth is, they aren’t. As a student, this much can be said: the topics taught in school simply are not fun. It is near impossible for a student to ever be genuinely interested in drawing a parabola or studying Newton’s Laws. And this is the single greatest reason why students find it so hard to be enthusiastic about learning. Instead of half-hearted attempts at making learning more bearable, a more in-depth initiative must be taken to to engage students as effectively as possible.

Another problem with the the standards-based grading system at ISB is its incompatibility with the high school’s systems. Middle school is an extraordinarily important period in a students’ school life, in the sense it is the time when students are prepared for the high school, in which the rest of their life could be altered by a single pencil mark. Mrs. Plantecoste assures that “The middle school does a great job of preparing you for high school.” She had explained that the standards upon which teachers report on are K-12 standards, meaning that the standards build on requirements from the previous level and have individual grade-level benchmarks that are defined through a meticulous process of planning. This implies that there isn’t a great shift in the educational requirements from middle school to high school; high school does not entail a drastically higher level of difficulty.

Despite such a well-functioning transition system, the nature of standards-based systems itself poses a great challenge to middle school students in terms of transition. Perhaps the most significant difference between the standards-based grade and the letter grade is the overall grade. According to ISB’s High School Assessment Guide, the letter grade system used in the high school determines the letter grade by averaging assignments throughout the semester, with differing weights given to different assignments based on significance. For example, formative assessments such as homework and classwork account for about 10% of the grade, while summative assignments such as projects and tests account for about 70%. The standards-based grading system used in the middle school, however, takes a much different approach. The overall grade is determined by the most recent summative assignment. This is not expressed in a single letter, but in a number of categories, which differs depending on the subject. For example, an English course has a speaking and listening category, a reading category, and a writing category.

The problem with this difference is that middle school students initially have a hard time adapting to the new methods when they enter the high school. In the middle school, students have much less pressure. Technically, the only assignments that they have to worry about are the last ones for each unit or semester. As a result, students are much less motivated and caring. In the high school, they must adapt to a more stressful environment in which every grade counts, for all four years. Due to this lack of preparation from the middle school, students may experience a longer period of assimilation to high school workings. Although this does not seem highly relevant, it is a critical issue. Suppose that an unsuspecting 8th grader used to slacking off in his junior years enters the high school. He would be expected to receive low results on his first few tests. Even if he realizes his mistake and performs much better throughout the rest of the year, the first few assignments pull back his average grade dramatically. This not only impacts the overall grade for his freshman year, but his entire GPA through high school.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

 The Revolution

            The problem of the grade is much more complex than a matter of switching grading systems. It is a problem that has been rooted in education for decades. This movement at ISB was unsuccessful, because it failed to be aggressive. The way it was implemented was half-hearted at most. The standards-based grading system had been brought into the middle school, as a flag-bearer of the cause. But the high school was more cautious, as the new system’s ideals not yet aligned with international standards. No matter how revolutionary a cause is, it cannot effective if it is only implemented for a short time frame.

What is needed is a major paradigm shift in the approach to learning. At this point, subtle methods such as changing a grading system simply does not work. In Seoul, they have the percentage grades, and students are obsessed with it. In Bangkok, we have the standards-based grades, and students still are obsessed with it. Whatever grading system is used, students will tend to focus on the grade. Learning based on grades have become the educational norm, and the educational norm is what must be changed. Far more drastic measures must be taken, and orchestrated by the entire community of schools as a whole. The concept of grades themselves may have to be abolished in order for students to shift their minds towards learning.

The legendary architect Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is what has to happen at the International School of Bangkok. Not a half-hearted revolution, but an all-or-nothing drive to change its educational society and its workings. Only then can the ideal world become the real one.



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