Teaching & Learning

Grades – the calories of education


As I have written for years, I’m a person who struggles with weight.  I’ve done diets, super-cleanses, exercise binges, camps, and tracked exercise and calories for years.  As a result, I can tell you a ton of things about myself, my body, and what “works”…but I can tell you many more things that don’t.

RunLaterAs a person who has bounced between normal (at least as normal looking as a 6’5” person can) and heavy, or if you’d like to use the BMI, we can actually and accurately say ‘obese’, I’ve read and been told a ton of advice.  But when my own data, my personal and accurate measures don’t jive with stereo-typically accepted terms…things get uncomfortable.  Let me explain.

Three years ago, I had some colleagues / friends tell me that if I started running, I’d “shred” pounds.  I’ve never run as an exercise in my life, not counting the wind sprints we did in football or basketball.  I never ran cross country or geared up for a marathon.  In short – running sucks.  Period.  I don’t buy into the “runner’s high” – I believe that to be an urban legend started by Adidas.  I don’t believe it to be pleasant in any way, and even runners who really run a lot…I see you out there.  I watch your faces as you run and see your bodies in discomfort.  It’s not good for anyone, I don’t care what you say.

That said, I have enough tenacity to push myself through even that kind of agony.  Don’t believe me?  Try this on for size.  For a year, I ran at least 5 times per week, sometimes running 7 out of 7 days in a row.  I ran for 30 minutes, in sunshine, at night, in snow, during wind…I ran.  I hated every moment, but I did it religiously.  And I improved things.  My times got better, my distances increased, etc.  But what never improved, not even a little, was that I didn’t lose a single pound.  Not one…ever.

CaloriesInOut2I know what you’re thinking.  I have had runners and nutritionists tell me this throughout.  I must have increased my caloric intake, right?  Most people who start exercising, add calories without even knowing.  But I didn’t.  I know because I track every meal, every snack, and every exercise session just as religiously.  From my fitbit to the MyFitnessPal app, as well as RunKeeper, I’m tracking everything.  So, for a year, I ate exactly the same average calories, while adding a caloric burn which averaged 383 calories.

But how is that possible?  After all, we hear from exercise gurus that it’s simple math – more calories than you need equals weight gain and less equals weight loss.  That’s what we’re told.  But I’m one of a million examples where it’s just not right.  It’s just not that simple.

CaloriesInOutI happen to know that my calorie stasis amount is between 2500-2600 calories per day.  If I eat that many calories, I won’t gain weight.  So, if I used the average caloric number assigned to everyone – 2000 – and ate that per day, I should technically be in a 5-600 calorie deprivation and lose, right?  Nope.  I don’t gain or lose at 2000 either.  I’ve tracked it for months.

So what if I go down to 1900?  Ah, now we’re talking, but it’s still not complete.  See, if I eat 1900 calories worth of pizza, I may gain a small amount, but likely won’t lose at all.  However, if I eat 1900 calories worth of roughage and pure protein, I may lose at a small rate.  In fact, if I want to try and lose a half pound per week, I need to take in 1500-1600 calories per day, I need to exercise 4-5 times per week, I need to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, AND I need to feel hungry most of the evening.  Yep, that thing that we’re always told by diet experts just doesn’t work for me.  If I’m not hungry at night, I won’t lose weight.

So how could any of this be?  Calories in / calories out makes so much sense.  It’s so easy.  It’s supposed to work for everyone.  But the truth is…it’s far more complicated than that.  How can I say that?

Because every diet known to man has worked for someone.  I remember hearing about an all-chocolate bar & diet soda diet in high school psychology having worked for someone.  Blood type diet?  Works for some people.  Atkins?  Check.  High fiber?  Check.  Calorie counting?  Check.  Flipping your calories from night to morning?  Check.  Now, is it actually possible to say that these diets worked for people?  Not truly.  There are so many other variables at work (like any person on any diet is likely cutting back on some calories without even realizing it) it’s almost impossible to say.  But it is definitely possible to say that calories alone just won’t cut it.  Variables like blood sugar, heredity, exercise (even muscle building vs cardio matters), glycemic indicators, bile production, sleep, and a million other things make a difference.

GradesVsMotivationSo why does this diatribe about nutrition, weight, and calories matter?  Because grades are to education as calories are to weight.  The picture is simply incomplete.  Is it fair to say that an ‘A’ student is smarter than a ‘B’ student?  I’ve seen studies suggesting the exact opposite.  ‘A’ students simply please teachers more, but there is no determination that they are smarter than anyone, including ‘F’ students.

GradeInflationDo ‘A’ students ultimately make the best employees?  Again, there isn’t really even a correlation here, so causality certainly cannot be determined.

So, am I suggesting we get away with grades and go to some other form of evaluation?  Is there even any other, scalable solution?

I’m actually not suggesting we get rid of grades any more than I would say to stop using calories.  But I am saying this…

Teachers shouldn’t focus on grades.  Schools shouldn’t focus on grades.  Professors shouldn’t focus on grades.  Doing so makes them a commodity, something our students see as currency.  They start demanding the grade instead of focusing on what really matters…learning to think better.

MotivationForRealEducators need to focus on the process, not the measure.  Our students will get plenty of real world judgment regarding output when they start working.  I had a long-time boss tell me after a recommendation to laud a department after a big time move, “We don’t reward effort, we only reward success.”  But when the grade is myopically focused on, just like when I myopically focus on calories, nothing changes.  There is no movement in what matters.

This ultimately goes back to Dweck’s work around Mindset.  Tell a person they are smart and they’ll work hard to keep “looking” smart (note – not being smart).  That means they’ll take fewer chances, because after all, chances can go either way, and one of those ways is to look like you failed.  Smart people don’t fail, right?

Do grades matter?  I honestly don’t know.  Comparing them to calories falls short because at least calories are the same every time – there is a scientific calculation to determine calories.  The calculations for grades is all over the place.  Sometimes it equates to effort, other times to score, while sometimes it is simply inflated to help a person feel better or possibly so as to stave off complaints.  Grades come from varying percentages of work type – tests, papers, presentations, projects, group work, and on and on.

But knowing we won’t stop using grades anytime soon, I am writing this for all practitioners.  Just like the best health guides don’t focus too heavily on ANY one aspect of health, including calories, let’s focus on other important things for our students.  From motivation to catalysts to engagement and beyond, let’s not allow grades to become the end-all, be-all of education.  We’ll all be better for it.

Good luck and good learning.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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