The grading of students is regularly criticized. As a result, this method of evaluation will gradually disappear in favour of controlling the acquisition of knowledge. Can we completely replace one with the other? I will show that the anti-note discourse is blind, obscuring the presence of the social collective.
Is the grading reductive?
The first criticism made of the notation is its reductive side. It reduces a multifaceted intelligence to a summary quantification between 0 and 20. Jean-Philippe Lachaux makes the analogy with two paintings by masters, Titian and Picasso, which would be compared by weighing them or measuring their dominant wavelength. The analogy is really stupid and paradoxically deflates the criticism. If the grade itself is reductive, it reflects an evaluation that is very multifaceted in the teacher. She knows many facets of the student, her ancillary skills, her motivation. On the contrary, the note incorporates additional dimensions to the subject matter, except when the copy is anonymous. It measures in a composite way the deviation from the ideal A of the teacher.
Composite measurement is the most natural for the brain. It is even its main tool for mastering the world. It categorizes, classifies, synthesizes. It thus succeeds in aggregating criteria that are not very mixable, and obtains its grail: the decision. The measures allow it to act on the world, to decide between several possible behaviors. Not to note is to refuse to decide. The temporary refusal is called ‘prudence’, the one that persists is a ‘resignation’.
The Skills Market
The problem of grading is not unrelated to the temptation to resign from education. Not grading is getting rid of the worries of the evaluation, or postponing them to the next year, passing them on to another teacher. Or it is the Education entity that shifts the problem to the World of Work: “I do not want to trouble my children by grading them. I am just indicating their competences. This will be enough for you to choose them.”
What are the limits of this discourse? The World of Work is in fact a Market. It does its shopping among the skills. Some are more expensive than others. Companies expect a lot. They compete for brains that think they are ideal, not just competent. But the disappearance of the notes equalizes the merchandise. There is no longer an exceptional or mediocre candidate. The labour market becomes functionary.
The collective score is not the sum of individual scores
The declining favor for grading may thus be one of the factors that have weakened the motivation of today’s younger generation for work. I am not making a moral judgment here. My purpose is simply to recall that educational choices have consequences that go far beyond the personal lives of students and teachers. Reflection on the subject is necessarily global.
This is the main criticism that must be made of the anti-note discourse. The point of view is reductive. It stops at the personal realization of the student. It absolutely does not take into account the collective in which the future adult will integrate. The discourse postulates that a set of individuals who feel good about themselves will necessarily make a successful collective. It is of course possible, even desirable, that this is the case. But this requires thinking about the rules of the collective and not only individual satisfactions. These satisfactions come into conflict. How to organize them? The collective is an entity independent of individuals. Its overall score is not the sum of the scores of all its citizens.
Stop anti-note Manichaeism
Education is not caught between meritocracy and egalitarianism, systems where grading goes from major importance to zero. There are a large number of intermediate systems. What do they actually have to adapt to? The discrepancy between unequal genetics, egalitarian ideals, and a society that seeks to take advantage of inequality. Finding the best compromise is not easy. But is it by doing without specific tools such as scoring that we will find it?
We need to think about how best to use it. For example, clearly separating intelligences. All brains are busy. But the performance of their functions varies. When we rate some unfavorably, we must simultaneously benefit others. Exacerbate identity, take it out of the egalitarian ‘average’ without destroying it.
In any case, let us put an end to anti-note militancy, which is dogmatism in the same way as meritocracy. It is to skew a tool without thinking about the major problems of our societies.
Notes: what impact on the brain? Jean-Philippe Lachaux, Brain & Psycho 151, 2023