Higher Needs, a Pyramid + Feedback

In How to Reform Capitalism, Alain de Botton writes:

“Most of us are, a good deal of the time, properly at sea: burdened by complaints, unfulfilled hopes, barely formulated longings, restless, anger, and grief.”

The argument, in extended form, is that capitalism isn’t really a “mature” system because most people aren’t happy, even if they can’t really say why. de Botton attributes the unhappiness—this sort of nausea—to capitalism’s inability to attend to our social, emotional, and even existential needs.  This line of thinking isn’t necessarily new (or even particularly groundbreaking), but it is instructive when I think about conversations with students about the kinds of feedback they want and the kinds of feedback they actually receive.

While students are often criticized in teacher-centered spaces on Twitter or at educational conferences as being overly focused on quantitative outcomes, like grades, we need to consider how our own behaviors contribute to the transactional nature of our classrooms, schools, and districts.   We can think of instances where we used grades as an attempt to motivate students to complete an assignment, or worse yet, where we weaponized grades to compel compliance with a rigid set of our regulations, reinforcing the power asymmetry between teachers and students.  Amy Hasinoff, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, discussed her own struggle with grading: “I was using grades to get the results I wanted…I was frustrated with the feeling that my job was becoming more about explaining and enforcing rules rather than teaching and learning.”  If the conversations we have with students are centered on points, especially justifying deductions for font choices, staple placement, and, yes, even lateness, we can’t be surprised when students are unhappy with us or with school.  Here, it’s worth thinking about how many students simply do what we ask because they want to avoid interactions with the oppressive power of grades and those assigning them.  When the work is transactional and rooted in compliance, we can’t be surprised when students skip to the bottom line and avoid taking risks.

It’s important to remember that humans are biologically designed to want feedback that helps them learn and grow; we seek out high-level interactions that help us review, revise, and relearn.  In de Botton’s argument about consumer capitalism, he argues that the vague unhappiness comes from companies, brands, and advertisers only fulfilling our most basic needs—the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid—without ever attending to our higher needs.  In my conversations with teachers over the last year at school and at conferences, I’ve frequently heard some offshoot of “grades are a form of feedback!”  While this isn’t necessarily untrue, grades only meet the most basic needs of our students.  If we’re not giving our students substantive, timely feedback that they can use to review, revise, and relearn, we’re not meeting their highest needs, which can exacerbate student feelings that school is transactional, especially when grades are “noisy,” meaning they don’t solely measure mastery of a skill, they measure a host of other things, usually revolving around compliance.

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Graphic: Samira Jamali

Worse yet, when our grading and feedback practices stay at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, our students are not be developing important skills that they will need to be successful in and after our class, inside and outside of school because errors are seen as areas of deficiency rather than areas for improvement.  As P.L. Thomas shares:

“I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessarily areas to learn, grow, and excel.”

If school revolves around grades and grades are centered in the student psyche as reinforcing deficit-oriented thinking, we can’t be surprised when there’s disengagement and avoidance.  As much as we’re programmed to seek out feedback, we’re also programmed to avoid pain.  This is especially true for students who our educational systems aren’t structured to support and who grades are often most weaponized against.

In How to Reform Capitalism, de Botton argues that true motivation occurs when we feel the purpose is high enough to act.  We need to keep this in mind when we ask students to engage in an activity or an assessment simply for a grade.  The purpose simply isn’t high enough, as grades can often have deleterious effects on student engagement.  Instead, I argue that helping students see assignments as real-deal learning experiences that they can use to improve their skills is a high enough purpose, especially if they know that you are an invested partner and collaborator.  Providing timely, feedback that directly addresses a student’s wants and needs and that can be immediately applied to their learning goals is an excellent way to develop working, trusting relationships with them, as is taking and applying their feedback about how to best meet their needs.  Too often, we talk about building relationships with students as something wholly separate from classroom practice, but the two have intimate links.  Indeed, rethinking and reforming feedback and grading practices is key to building schools capable of closing achievement gaps. 

Last year, I revisited student-led face-to-face grading with some of my students after moving away from it, and I had forgotten how purposeful and meaningful it felt.  While I still had in-class conferences with students throughout the writing process and many students used our school’s peer Writing Center, hearing students talk so passionately, openly, and critically about their process was a revelation, so much so that the discussions often went well beyond their scheduled time.  Students wanted feedback on their prewriting strategies, organizational tips for paper structure, and advice on developing more critical relationships with their source material.  The grade wasn’t even mentioned in a vast majority of the conversations because, in the end, the grade mattered very little—students have unlimited opportunities to revise using feedback—and because the purpose felt higher than a number in PowerSchool.

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Using any high-level feedback strategy effectively, whether its face-to-face grading or something else, requires us to gain students’ trust over time by showing them that we’re collaborators in learning willing to share power and vulnerability with them, and it also requires us to trust our students as people who want to learn and grow and can do so without the existential threats of grades and grading. 

Our students will be happier, and so will we.

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