How to Build Castles in the Air

Hilda: My lovely, lovely castle. Our castle in the air!
Solness: On a firm foundation.

One of the more profound ironies of “going gradeless” is realizing just how fundamental grades are to the architecture of schools.

Grades undergird nearly everything we do in education. By threatening late penalties and administering one-shot assessments, we focus our famously distracted students on the task at hand. By regularly updating our online gradebooks, we provide an ongoing snapshot of student performance so precise it can be calculated to the hundredths place.

Grades inform our curriculum and instruction too. Because so much rides on them, it’s essential we build upon the rock of “objective” data, not the shifting sands of human judgment. Thus, we limit ourselves to those kinds of learning that can be easily measured and quantified. A multiple choice quiz testing students’ knowledge of literary devices can be reliably scored by your 10-year-old daughter (not saying I’ve ever done that). A stack of bubble sheets can be scanned on your way out of the building for the summer. Check your results online in the driveway, then go inside and make yourself a margarita.

If you want to evaluate something more complex, like writing, you had better develop an iron-clad rubric and engage in some serious range-finding sessions with your colleagues. Don’t put anything subjective like creativity or risk taking on that rubric — you’re already on shaky ground as it is. Make sure to provide an especially strict template so that the essay is fully prepared to “meet its maker.” Word choice, punctuation, sentence variety, quote incorporation — these are the nuts and bolts of writing. If the Hemingway Editor can’t see it, isn’t it just your opinion?

Hopefully, you see the irony here. Grades don’t communicate achievement; most contain a vast idiosyncratic array of weights, curves, point values, and penalties. Nor do they motivate students much beyond what it takes to maintain a respectable GPA. And by forcing us to focus on so-called objective measures, grades have us trade that which is most meaningful for that which is merely demonstrable: recall, algorithm use, anything that can be reified into a rubric. Grading reforms have sometimes succeeded in making these numbers, levels, and letters more meaningful, but more often than not it is the learning that suffers, as we continually herd our rich, interconnected disciplines into the gradebook’s endless succession of separate cells.

So, as I’ve said before, grades are not great. Nor are the ancillary tools, tests, structures, and strategies that support them. But as anyone who has gone gradeless can tell you, grades don’t just magically go away, leaving us free to fan the flames of intrinsic motivation and student passion. Grades remain the very foundation on which we build. Most gradeless teachers must enter a grade at the end of each marking period and, even if we didn’t, our whole educational enterprise is overshadowed by the specter of college admissions and scholarships. And since grades and tests rank so high in those determinations, we kid ourselves in thinking we’ve escaped their influence.

Even in a hypothetical environment without these extrinsic stresses, students are still subject to a myriad of influences, not the least of which being the tech industry with its constant bombardment of notifications and nudges. This industry, which spends billions engineering apps for maximum engagement, has already rendered the comparatively modest inducements of traditional schooling laughable. Still, the rhetoric of autonomy, passion, and engagement always seems to take this in stride, as if the Buddha — not billionaires — is behind this ever-expanding universe.

Let’s go one more step further, though, and imagine a world without the tech industry. Surely that would be a world in which the “inner mounting flame” of student passion could flourish.

But complete freedom, autonomy, and agency is not a neutral or even acceptable foundation for education. The notion of a blank slate on which to continuously project one’s passion, innovation, or genius is seriously flawed. Sherri Spelic, examining the related rhetoric of design thinking, points out how “neoliberal enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and start-up culture” does little to address “social dilemmas fueled by historic inequality and stratification.” In other words, blank spaces — including the supposed blank space of going gradeless — are usually little more than blind spots. And often these blind spots are where our more marginalized students fall through the cracks.

Even if we were able provide widespread, equitable access to springboards of self-expression, autonomy, and innovation, what then? To what extent are we all unwittingly falling into a larger neoliberal trap that, in the words of Byung-Chul Han, turns each of us into an “auto-exploiting labourer in his or her own enterprise”?

Today, we do not deem ourselves subjugated subjects, but rather projects: always refashioning and reinventing ourselves. A sense of freedom attends passing from the state of subject to that of project. All the same, this projection amounts to a form of compulsion and constraint — indeed, to a more efficient kind of subjectification and subjugation. As a project deeming itself free of external and alien limitations, the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.

One doesn’t have to look too far to find the rhetoric of “harnessing student passion” and “self-regulated learners” to understand the paradoxical truth of this statement. This vision of education, in addition to constituting a new strategy of control, also undermines any sense of classrooms as communities of care and locations of resistance.

Clearly, not all intrinsic or extrinsic motivation is created equal. Perhaps instead of framing the issue in these terms, we should see it as a question of commitment or capitulation.

Commitment entails a robust willingness to construct change around what Gert Biesta describes as fundamental questions of “content, purpose, and relationship.” It requires that we find ways to better communicate and support student learning, produce more equitable results, and, yes, sometimes shield students from outside influences. Contrary to the soaring rhetoric of intrinsic motivation, none of this will happen by itself.

Capitulation means shirking this responsibility, submerging it in the reductive comfort of numbers or in neoliberal notions of autonomy.

Framing going gradeless through the lens of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, then, is not only misleading and limited, it’s harmful. No teacher — gradeless or otherwise — can avoid the task of finding humane ways to leverage each of these in the service of greater goals. Even if we could, there are other interests, much more powerful, much more entrenched, and much better funded than us always ready to rush into that vacuum.

To resist these forces, we will need to use everything in our power to find and imagine new structures and strategies, building our castles in air on firm foundations.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook. Also, please join us for a #tg2chat on Structures & Strategies this Sunday, February 25, 2018 at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “How to Build Castles in the Air

  1. Thanks for sharing your thinking here, Arthur. You helped me think about the distinctions between intrinsic motivation and commitment to construct change.

    Not sure how to start, so I’ll just jump into it.

    I’ve felt a sense of dissatisfaction with the language of “passion” and “passionate learners” some progressive educators (myself included) speak. While I’d hate to encourage the opposite through my teaching 🙂 I do worry that 1) “passion” can sometimes be just about oneself and what’s inside and can lack engagement with larger structures in the world; 2) a model of “continuous improvement” (maybe what you mean by a “project”?) also has an ideological component and a history (and can be oppressive, too!)

    So, you’ve gotten me questioning my use of the words “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” and “passion.” But you’ve also caused me to wonder — what value do we add when we replace one dichotomy with another? Does commitment and capitulation create another set of categories that are not quite descriptive enough? Do they create another set of constraints?

    Here’s what I mean:
    You laid out how even those who go gradeless exist in a system that sorts into grades. I’ve felt those tensions; I know students do, too. In a way, your thinking about passion and motivation has helped me understand why I feel that I am in a constant struggle between commitment and capitulation, too! When I find myself answering I’M BOTH and will always be both, it makes me wonder if a dichotomy is all that useful.

    I wonder if one way to think about this struggle is not as a dichotomy among categories (intrinsic v. extrinsic / commitment v. capitulation), but as a set of questions that invite description and analysis whose purpose is to guide decision-making. For example, what if the questions were ones like these: “Who benefits from this decision/practice/analysis? Who pays as a result? What structures help create these results? How might I change that balance?”

    I’m wondering if reflection on questions like those would allow me to focus less on how I am or am not committed or capitulating (I’m both), but would help me describe the effect of the choices that I make as a teacher?

    At any rate, I really appreciate how you’ve helped me think about stuff. As I re-read what I’ve written, I’m not sure that what I’ve written is all that helpful to think about. It seems probably some of what I”ve written is implicit in your idea of commitment to change, but I’ll send this on anyway with a big thanks for writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve, Thanks for engaging these ideas so deeply. I think you raise some valid concerns. I agree that dichotomies are only so useful.

      As I said over on Medium, I sometimes wonder if the two phenomena I discuss —grades and this particular brand of reform—arise from the same impulse: to exonerate oneself from blame, to place oneself above reproach. Often recourse to one or the other exempts us from larger questions. I love the questions you suggest. To me, teachers engaging in that kind of reflection is a clear example of commitment.


  2. Arthur, I can see so clearly your struggle to continually evolve as an educator with each piece. You articulate so well many of my thoughts. There’s so much individual reflection that needs to be done by us all to make teaching, and everything else, make sense.

    Grades or no grades, the systems our students find themselves in still wield the power of grades over them, no matter what we do in our individual classrooms. Yes, we strive to minimize the harm they cause, but isn’t there something more we should be doing? Shouldn’t we have been able to reimagine and build that system by now?

    Unless we consider the larger structures, our analyses will always be incomplete. I struggle with this all the tine. Thank you for making your thoughts visible for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Marian,

      You have been such a large part of my development as an educator. That tension between minimizing harm and addressing larger systemic injustices is one I am only recently waking up to I’m afraid. Those two conversations can inform each other I think, but all too often they don’t.

      Sometimes I wonder if the sheer workload of teachers serves to keep their nose to the grindstone of their own isolated situation and setting. I’m thankful for the many ways you’ve broadened my horizons.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Arthur,

    I’m so glad I have discovered this site – you have a very rich and deep philosophical ‘wrestle’ going-on which is very much up my street – particularly the constant dialectic between where you want to go and the constraints and downsides to it.

    This is going to sound very simplistic, but are you effectively saying the following:
    – The attempt to go gradeless is a desire to free education from the tyranny of ‘valuing what we can measure’ so as to release the development of things of real value within the individual.
    – The typical language of progressivism however leads this project into a narcissistic flourishing of individualism.
    – Ideally we would somehow channel this freedom – through a different form of discourse – into something more communitarian?

    If I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick, please just say – I’m very keen to properly explore the ideas you’re wrestling with.

    Many thanks,


    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris, Thanks for the thoughtful reading. No, I think you have it down perfectly. I feel okay leaving it here because I’ve always seen the value in taking things to that Abrahamic, aporic impasse — if for no other reason than it’s humbling. I’m glad you found us and hope we’ll have more opportunities to explore these kinds of questions together!

      Liked by 1 person

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