Earning, Learning & the Currency of Schools

“Congratulations! You earned an ‘A+’!”

“You have all worked hard and earned these diplomas.”

“You gave me an ‘A’?”
“No. I didn’t give you an ‘A’. You earned it.”

We hear this word “earn” mentioned often in educational institutions. The seems to have its origin in the Old English word, “earnian”. As I examine the etymology, it has a long history of being about laboring for something, or getting the benefits from harvest work. Today it also has a strong economic meaning. Our taxes are based on our earnings and the first definition in our dictionaries is about earning money for work.

With this in mind, letter grades, diplomas, certificates, and even emerging credentials like digital badges are all a form of currency.  They are abstractions that we earn for some accomplishment or achievement.

Here is a major difference. With currency (like the dollar), we often use it in exchange for products or services. That is not how it works with credentials. We do not exchange our credentials. We maintain them even as we use them. Instead, credentials are less about currency and more about evidence.

But wait? If credentials are more about evidence than currency, why do we use the language of currency in reference to them? Perhaps it is because we have established an educational system that, at the time of the industrial revolution, became mainly about job preparation. What better way to prepare people for an industrial age job than to create an educational system where you have them do work and then they “pay” you something for your work? In the case of schools, we have a system that rewards or pays according to how carefully one follows the instructions, how well one accomplishes the given jobs according to the standards established by the boss. It is with this in mind that it is no surprise to see schools experimenting with changing the currency, namely paying students vouchers or actual money in return for their work in school. This is a logical result of thinking about student learning (or at least student work) in mainly economic terms.

This also helps us understand a problem with the letter grade system. When I write and talk with people about the limitations of the letter grade system, I often do the syllabus experiment. I ask them to find any syllabus and try to calculate the highest possible grade one could earn by knowing very little and the lowest possible grade while knowing a great deal. Doing these experiment with several syllabi, we quickly discover that the grade one “earns” is not directly connected to what a student does or does not know. Instead, it represents whether a student met a series of standards and expectations. Did they participate in the way that the teacher desired? Did they do things on the teacher-established timeline? Did they color within the lines (both literally and figuratively)? Did they complete things in the appropriate order? Did they know enough about the subject prior to the start of the course? Were they able to learn something quickly and with less time necessary? This all fits nicely with the idea of preparing workers to function in an industrial system. As such, many teachers see grades as a form of payment for doing what is expected, but not as much as evidence of what one has or has not learned. It is not about learning. It is about earning. And yet, we use mistake letter grades as the best evidence of learning.

The problem is that letter grades are not a strong predictor of high performance in many contemporary jobs. They predict success within further school systems that also use the same currency, but they don’t transfer as effectively outside that system. Check out the myriad of articles about Google’s discovery of this fact.

This is why I contend that it is time to seriously and more broadly consider alternatives (or at least parallel options) to the current system of credentialing in educational institutions. What about standards-based education, portfolio assessments, narrative assessments, and even open badge systems? Each of these have their own limitations, but they also have their benefits. Some of them, like digital badges, continue to use the language of earning. Yet, they also offer the affordance of potentially being more directly tied to evidence of learning, and they are truly “owned” by the learner once they are “earned” (unlike grades which are maintained in the files of the issuing institution). I see badges as a promising option that builds on the current metaphor of earning, but can help us progress toward a greater focus on learning. Yet, options like portfolio and narrative assessment allow us to potentially move away from the language of earning. They become about feedback, about documentation, about making evidence of learning visible to others.

Ultimately, my question is about our goals and intended purpose in education. Do we want education to be mainly about earning? Or, are we willing to adjust our language, metaphors and practices to foster communities of more genuine learning?