How do Grades Hurt Us?

A vending machine for art. It looks like it was re-purposed from a cigarette vending machine.
This re-purposed vending machine is all about external motivation–which piece of art would you like to buy? ©Laurel Decher, 2020.

Reading an article about how it hurts kids to focus on “grades” instead of “learning”: “Grades vs Learning: Shifting Attention to What’s Important

“Drafts, re-dos, and ‘evolving assignments'” may help students to focus on getting better at something instead of getting a good grade.

Hmm. That sure sounds like writing a book! Everybody write a book! *just kidding*

Creativity is supposed to increase when the motivation comes from inside the art instead of from outside. Poet and counselor Mark McGuiness’s MOTIVATION FOR CREATIVE PEOPLE is a wonderful exploration of this.

It’s hard to do your best work when you’re thinking about losing points.

The truth is: we all get grades. Adults have workplace evaluations, product sales, reviews, raises, etc. We all have to learn to use both kinds of motivation. 

At the Festival of Faith and Writing in 2004, beloved children’s author Katherine Patterson told a story about being stuck on a novel. She told a writing friend, “I haven’t learned anything!”

The friend said, “You’ve learned that novels can be finished.”

Listen to Katherine Patterson’s wonderful keynote speech here.

To me this means,

“Panic doesn’t mean anything. It’s a normal part of the process. It’s noise. It’s trying to keep you from playing with your work until you get something you like.”

How can we remind ourselves of this more often? How can we teach kids to work with both kinds of motivation? (Or how can they teach us?)


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