Games, Grading, and Baby Turkeys

Scott Sorheim sent me a link to this video on games (sorry I did not embed—my computer is being weird).

I found this entire video to be interesting and entertaining, but Scott sent this to me because it touches on grading. At the 19:00 minute mark, the speaker describes how Lee Sheldon determines grades in (at least one of) his classes. The section on grading is done by the 20:00 minute mark, so I will not describe it here.

The key phrase in that 45 second clip is: “Cuz school’s a game, right?” If you accept this premise, I agree that Sheldon’s grading system is far superior to most out there. But to accept this premise, you are accepting many other ideas, too. For one, the point of school becomes “Get a good grade” rather than “learn a lot.”

I, of course, value learning over grades if I am forced to choose (and it turns out that we often are). In fact, Sheldon’s method reminds me of feeding a baby turkey. From this page,

Turkeys are not very intelligent when it comes to eating and drinking; they need to be taught. The stories you hear about baby turkeys looking up in the rain and drowning are true. Put marbles (or something shiny) in their water and feed. The turkeys will peck at the shiny marbles and learn to eat and drink. Occasionally this will not work. In that case sprinkle green food coloring over feed or put some baby chicks in to teach them to eat. After a few days they will be well educated.

Disclaimer: I am not a turkey farmer. But my understanding is this: farmers put marbles in the food of the baby turkeys. These turkeys peck at the shiny marbles, and their beaks slip off into the food. This ends up giving them just enough food to survive until they learn how to eat on their own.

It seems to me like many grading systems—and Sheldon’s in particular—treat students as if they are baby turkeys. We give them homework assignments, make them attend class, etc. in the hopes that this indirectly leads to learning. In essence, we hope that the students peck at enough assignments that they accidentally learn something from them. Sheldon’s genius is that he has devised a system that gets students to peck a lot.

Fortunately for me, the vast majority of my students are non-avian; without exception, they are smarter than baby turkeys. Because of this, I think that we should be able to bypass the whole marble phase and simply ask them to eat. Not only is this more direct, but it is more respectful of the students.

I do not want to do sound like I am being too critical of Sheldon; on the contrary, I think that he has probably greatly improved the system. My concern is that the system should be replaced, not improved upon. The system should be made so that the point of an assignment is to learn, rather than to accumulate enough points to move up to the next experience level.


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