Taking Back Teaching: A Forgotten History

[Update 5 April 2010: Prof. (?) Paul Worfel weighs in with some evidence that the story of William Farish, as relayed by Thom Hartmann below, is more complicated than Hartmann suggests. Read his comment here (scroll down for his response to Claire’s comment) for the details — and thanks to Paul for the fact-checking.]

They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within.
Leonard Cohen

grading tweets

The model of education from its earliest times was one of mentorship, starting with hunter-gatherers taking their children out on the hunt 100,000 years ago, all the way up to the teaching methods employed at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson. The teacher and the students got to know one another. They interacted constantly throughout the day. The teacher knew each child, had a clear vision of each child’s understanding of the coursework, and worked with each child (or encouraged them to work with each other) until the teacher was satisfied each child understood the material … or was hopelessly incapable of being educated. Because this latter was virtually an admission of failure on the part of the teacher, it happened rarely.

When a student graduated, the most impressive thing she or he could share with a prospective employer was not a Grade Point Average (GPA) or even the name of the institution attended: it was the name of the teacher. Students of the great teachers of history often became famous themselves because of the thoroughness with which their mentors had inculcated knowledge, understanding, skill, and talent in them.

This is how things went from 98,000 BC to roughly 1800 AD. Then came William Farish.

Source: Thom Hartmann*, Complete Guide to ADHD, quoted on Pathfinder Academy’s “Why Doesn’t Your School Give Grades?” (cached version)

I surfed into the above article while reading Charlie A. Roy’s “Grades, Grades and More Grades!” post on his Souly Catholic HS blog. (Theologically, Charlie and I couldn’t be more opposed; humanly, I feel very close to him, enjoying his thoughts and writings, and our dialogues. There’s something about that I like very much.)

The Hartmann excerpt seems to answer a question about which Doug Noon, Jennifer Orr, and I tweeted several weeks ago, as the above screenshot shows: What are the origins and history of grading in modern education?

If Hartmann’s research is correct, the bad smell of grading comes from its rotten historical roots: grading was invented by one William Farish, a lazy teacher who invented grading in order to increase his class size, decrease the necessity for teachers to have real relationships with their students, and fatten his income. Hartmann explains (emphases added):

Around the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was going full-bore. Piece-work payments were becoming increasingly popular, and many schools were beginning to pay teachers based on the number of students they had, as opposed to a flat salary.

William Farish was a tutor at Cambridge University in England in 1792, and, other than his single contribution to the subsequent devastation of generations of schoolchildren, is otherwise undistinguished and unknown by most people.

Getting to know his students, one may suppose, was too much trouble for Farish. It meant work, interacting and participating daily with each child. It meant paying attention to their needs, to their understanding, to their styles of learning. It meant there was a limit on the number of students he could thus get to know, and therefore a limit on how much money he could earn.

So Farish came up with a method of teaching which would allow him to process more students in a shorter period of time. He invented grades. (The grading system had originated earlier in the factories, as a way of determining if the shoes, for example, made on the assembly line were “up to grade.” It was used as a benchmark to determine if the workers should be paid, and if the shoes could be sold.)

  • Grades did not make students smarter. In fact, they had the opposite effect: they made it harder for those children to succeed whose style of learning didn’t match the didactic, auditory form of lecture-teaching Farish used.
  • Grades didn’t give students deeper insights into their topics of study. Instead, grades forced children to memorize by rote only those details necessary to pass the tests, without regard to true comprehension of the subject matter.
  • Grades didn’t encourage critical thinking or insight skills, didn’t promote questioning minds. Such behaviors are useless in the graded classroom, and within a few generations were considered so irrelevant that today they’re no longer listed among the goals of public education.
  • Grades didn’t stimulate the students, or share with them a contagious love for the subject being studied. The opposite happened, in fact, as the normative effect of grades acted as a muffling blanket to any eruptions of enthusiasm, any attempts to dig deeper into a topic, any discursions into larger significance or practical application of content.

What grades did do, however, was increase the salary of William Farish, while, at the same time, lowering his workload and reducing the hours he needed to spend in the classroom. He no longer needed to burrow into his students’ minds to know if they understood a topic: his grading system would do it for him. And it would do it just as efficiently for twenty children as it would for two hundred.

Farish brought grades to the classroom, and the transformation was both sudden and startling: a revolution as rapid and overwhelming as the Industrial Revolution from which it had sprung. Within a generation, the lecture-hall/classroom shifted from a place where one heard the occasional speech by a famous thinker to the place of ordinary daily instruction.

While grades didn’t help students a bit – and, in fact, had the now well-known effect of “dumbing down” entire nations – they vastly simplified the work of teachers and schools. So they spread across Europe and to America with startling speed, arriving here in the early 1800s.

Without grades, the assembly-line-classroom would not be possible. With grades, whole categories of children were discovered who didn’t fit onto the conveyer belt, providing an entire new realm of employment for’ adults who would diagnose, treat, and remediate these newly-discovered “learning disabled” children.

Responsibility for the success of learning shifted from teachers to students: when kids failed, it was their own fault, because they obviously had a defect or disorder of some sort.

A process of sorting and discarding the misfits began (just like in the shoe factory) which, to this day, rewards the “standard” and wounds the “different.”

William Farish gained, but something precious was lost to generations of students thereafter: the mentored learning experience.

Stop and think about all of this.

We’re so aghast at “the pointlessness,” as Jen puts it, of grading, that we don’t step back for a wider view of grading’s evil twin: over-sized classrooms. We’ve become so accustomed to the historical accident of large-scale factory schools that we take it as “second nature,” not contingent and therefore changeable artifice, that teachers are expected to adequately educate one or two hundred students each week. So complete is our acceptance of factory schooling, we consider classes of twenty “small” when, I would argue, even twenty students for an hour is a recipe for poor learning – come on, do the math: one teacher teaching twenty students for an hour equals three minutes of individual attention maximum. Multiply that “small class” by the typical five-class schedule, and you have one teacher expected to somehow know and mentor 100 individuals through daily and weekly learning.

I said much the same thing in the comment I left on Charlie’s post:

It’s eye-opening that the whole purpose of grades was to increase class size so teachers could earn more by “teaching” more students at a time.

To me, class size is the other damnable impediment to effective teaching-and-learning. As an acquaintance in California shared with me recently: “1 teacher, 30 students: You do the math.” It’s impossible to effectively teach more than a handful of students – I’d say five to ten – and grading doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to expand the “radical” critique beyond Kohn’s anti-grade crusade to include an anti-large class size campaign as well.

Large class sizes plus the GPA game transforms students into grade-junkies, and teachers into mere graders. My evidence: I’ve had about 50 students ask to meet to discuss their grade this year, and how they can raise it. I’ve had three ask to meet to discuss how to write better, read poetry better, or otherwise “learn from teacher.” My take-away: they see me as a grade-giver, and school as an instrument for getting them into college, not a place to learn.

In a second comment responding to Charlie’s attempt to “wrap [his] mind around what the typical high school experience would look like without grades,” I added this:

[Y]our cry for “help” seems hopeless because you say you’re trying to envision a “typical high school experience without grades.”

Any high school without grades is not typical, right? And any high school with teacher-student ratios below 1:10 also atypical.

So to me, the problem is that typical high schools can’t work. But the Kohn article you link to suggests otherwise.

This all connects to the decision I announced yesterday to “stop working for schools so I can teach.” Some of the comments I’ve received suggest that people have defined schools as a necessary ingredient in the definition of “teaching,” and I can’t say loudly enough that that is an historical error of the largest proportions: as Hartmann states above, teachers from Socrates and Buddha to Jesus and Abelard to modern times – until that damned William Farish invented grades – were occupied with the job of helping a manageable number of learners learn to think and do through human interaction, not through grading.

Things are so bad now that we call professional graders “teachers,” when the two couldn’t be farther apart. Another comment, this time from my “Saying Goodbye” post yesterday, in response to Vejraska, who (dubiously, I say in unfeigned humility) lamented, “Another outstanding force in the arena of formal teaching leaves, and may I say that the educational system will blink and move on, while many kids will miss out on something so special.” I replied:

The students will blink and move on too. And the loss is not great – I work at the most expensive school in Korea, for the very privileged only, so it’s not like I was playing a noble role as a life-saver for the needy, the way public schoolteachers do.

I like your phrasing, though, of the loss being to “formal education.” It made me latch onto the opposite – informal education – as a decent working title for what education has always been when it was good, and before grades came onto the scene 210 years ago and ruined everything.

Informal education – “Let’s talk about your writing.” “Let’s talk about history.” “What do you think about This or That? Why?” Socratic. Mentoring. Apprenticing. Talking. Trying this and that. Playing. No bells, no grades. Knowing each other for more than 9-month terms – because so much is only ready to be learned when the class comes to an end.

On and on.

Thanks again, all. I’m excited to try teaching for real, unadministered. When your students (or their parents) can fire you for unsatisfactory work, think of the improved service you’ll give. And double that, when you think of being able to choose your students, and fire them for similar breach of learning. Awesome prospects.

In closing, for now, I’ll add a huge irony: here in Korea, parents long ago demonstrated their loss of faith in mass education factory classrooms by sending their children to night and weekend schools for more individualized learning in smaller classrooms. Schoolteachers are literally considered less important than after-school tutors when it comes to their children’s learning. These tutors do not fill out report cards and gradebooks, but they do teach their students with dedication in these private classes. [Update: I’ve since learned how untrue this is. These cram schools just exist to make those kids score better on their standardized tests at school and their college applications.]

The irony? I don’t blame the parents. They’ve done the math too. Small classes with real teacher-student interaction are surely more effective than large class sizes beyond the school-teacher’s means to intimately connect with.

This may anger a lot of people, but I’m outside the box enough to expect that: I think the parents are right, though I decry the over-scheduling of their children with these extra classes. In the past, I complained that parents should drop the night and weekend classes for their children, and let the day school do its job. Now, though? I think the opposite. It’s the 40-hour day-school week that seems the bigger waste of time.

And we have that revolutionary grading and too-large classroom charlatan, William Farish, to blame. Him, and the schools that adopted his method in order to create more business by bloating education with more paying students than they could ever classically teach.

So for the record: I’m not leaving teaching; I’m leaving schooling.

*Thom, if you read this, I’m definitely ordering your book. And your radio show looks golden.

67 thoughts on “Taking Back Teaching: A Forgotten History”

  1. My heart breaks as I read the above articles, and I know from experience, the so called “reform” in education has broken what was on the way to becoming a sound education system of its own accord.

    We in Migrant education in the 80’s were on the cutting edge of best practice. Then came along the supposed “Nation at Risk” and all the political lies that went along with it. In Oregon where I taught, a property tax revolution combined with political expediency to create a monster called 21 Century Reform, a flailing giant that trampled everything in the path, including best practices as identified through decades of painstaking research.

    The teaching profession was helpless before the onslaught. Realizing they had to go along to get along, many tried to “steer” the monster in the right direction, but the monster constantly made demands that no one could possibly meet. Demands such as the ridiculous “CIMS” and “CAMS,” which were nothing other than a wish list of dreamers, pushy industrialists, aided and abetted by elitist parents pushing programs suitable for their TAG brats but hopelessly doomed to fail on the larger population.

    Students were placed under constant pressure to perform beyond their capacity, all under the false notion that all one must do is “raise the bar” and push harder and everyone will automatically become an Einstein.

    When it failed, as it was doomed to from the start, they claimed it was the fault of teachers, the fault of parents, the fault of teaching methods and techniques ad infinitum. All we needed, the promoters said, was more time. Time to train teachers, time for students to learn (the same high standards for all students) etc. etc. All teachers with any idea of education knew this was all bovine excrement. But on and on it went. How many years, twenty maybe? Did anyone ever earn a Certificate of Advanced Mastery in the State of Oregon? Nobody while I was in teaching ever earned a CAM. Nobody! In at least ten years, not even one student ever earned a CAM in spite of standards being constantly fine tuned.

    You would think it might have occurred to somebody up there that the whole experiment was wrongheaded from the start. But nope. The governments, politicians, the media in general, state departments of educations, Presidents of institutions of higher learning, all seem to be still insisting on the wisdom of this idiocy. Anybody out there other than me see a naked emperor?

  2. I really enjoyed this article and many of the great comments posted in response to it. I find it troublesome at how many people have the attitude of “yes, grades are bad, I knew it all along!” They can barely contain their feelings of superiority as they have been keepers of some great secret. I do not think that grades are inherently bad. I also think we should think carefully about joining forces to abolish grades – in as much as 200 years ago we should have have thought carefully about bringing them in. I think it is unwise to demand we switch to an education model on the opposite side of the pendulum swing.

    What I find most troubling is the number of people discussing how to best “educate” students, or how our schools are “failing” without discussing what the goals of our education system is, or what it means to educate a person. How do we know we are failing when we don’t have a goal? One could arge that the role of the school and teacher is to (in no particular order):

    1. Teach curriculum
    2. Promote a joy of learning
    3. Allow direction in free thought and creativity
    4. Allow students to develop socially and emotionally
    5. Babysit children while both parents are at work

    There are surely more goals, or more specific sub-goals. But which ones do we value most? Which do we wish to succeed over others? Do not tell me that our schools are failing because we have lower test scores. This is what I hear most often and it is a shame. As Lockhart might say, there are millions of people with the Quadratic Equation burned into their brain with no understanding as to what that means. If a student forgets everything from their senior math class will they be ok? Probably, because if you have a 16 year old student, you probably can’t solve their homework problems. Let’s get our goals straight first – then we can discuss where we are failing.

    To go back a step, grades are no inherently bad. They are a performance indicator. They are not very specific and should not be used exclusively without other types of feedback. There is the case that these students need grades to get into University. And slapping a grade at the end of the year would most likely result in an unfair grade based on no real performance or accurate assessment of the learning that has taken place. Maybe the student is likable, polite and courteous, the teacher will likely (even subconsciously) asses them improperly. Given the fact that our society will not get all students in a 1:10 teacher-student ratio, we should be discussing how we can get students to focus on their own learning, rather on the grade itself.

    Justins last blog post..Reducing Student Stress

  3. I’m just curious, I remember learning that the Chinese bureaucracy had exams they had to take in order to enter the service. Could these not be seen as a type of grade? Make a high enough grade on the exam and you get to enter the civil service.

    I wonder if we can go back further to find evidence of grading in other non-Western cultures.

  4. Hi David,

    Love this connection, since I (obsessively, almost religiously) teach Chinese history. I’ve often used the “Civil Service Exams as SAT” analogy, but your comment prompted a closer look at to what extent that analogy holds. Were there multiple choice, objective bubble-filling affairs? Or were these tests, while standardized, of a higher order?

    I found this description of the form of the exams on JSTOR:

    The Qing Civil Service Examination, like many other aspects of Government, was modeled after its Ming predecessor. The Provincial Examination, being one of these public examinations, was no exception. The candidate was required to attend three stages in the Examination. In the first stage, three questions on the Four Books and four questions on each of the Five Classics were set to be answered in the eight-legged form. He was asked to answer only the four questions on the particular Classic with which he was most familiar. The second stage was intended to test the candidate’s knowledge of the Canons of Filial Piety asking him to write a discussion on that book. In addition,he had to compose five themes on ‘verdict-writing’ and attempt any one of the political forms of writing: ‘address to the emperor’ (piao), ‘imperial declaration’ (kao), or another form of ‘imperial decree’ (chao). In the third stage, five themes on the elucidation of problems concerning the Classics, history and administrative affairs (ts’e) were set.

    Seems to me that a) the “eight-legged essay,” while seeming an easy mark to dismiss because it brings to mind the mind-numbing American “five-paragraph essay,” is instead a far more complex affair. Some Chinese intellectuals in the Imperial era did oppose its introduction during the Song Dynasty (10th to 13th C.), and Qing Emperor Kangxi did try to abolish it for political, not academic, reasons. But the description above shows interesting strengths:

    1) it “differentiates” by allowing candidates to write on the Classic they know best;
    2) no sign of multiple choice stuff
    3) its standards of rhetoric are varied by “leg,” but all of them require more than simple coherence, organization, evidence, etc that our prosaic academic essay form settles for; they seem to require advanced style.
    4) it requires conceptual mastery of and creative insight into the classics and, most intriguing to me, some “problems” concerning the books, history in general, and government administration. Sounds like “problem-solving” instead of regurgitation.
    5) rhetorically, again, we see the requirement that students display mastery in several genres.

    I’ll stop there. But what I’m seeing in the Imperial Civil Service Exams is, yes, a standardized testing system, but without machine-gradable inert knowledge stuff.



    1. More from that JSTOR article that touches more closely on the issue of the post: “lazy grading”–

      Another more practical reason for the difficulty of doing away with the eight-legged style was the ease and uniformity which the latter provided for the marking of candidates papers. As time went on,owing to the attraction the official degrees offered, the number of participants in the Civil Service Examinations became greater and greater, and with it the difficulty of judging the examination papers came to be acute. It called for some sort of uniformity of answer-form so that the examiners could judge impartially and without fear of selecting the wrong answer-papers. The eight-legged form satisfied the examiners with its quality of uniformity. Any deviations from the standard form would entail disqualification This means that they had only to choose among those papers which corresponded with the prescribed structure, while they could disregard the rest. The eight-legged essay form thus saved them much trouble on the one hand, and kept them immune from the imperial anger on the other.

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