What Adam Rippon Teaches Us About Points

How can we measure the pure beauty of Adam Rippon’s figure skating? Is there a point value we can assign to his poise, his grace, his ability to evoke emotion on the ice?

Adam Rippon did not have a high enough “technical score” in order to earn a medal for his long skate. That’s because the Olympic Committee values measurable skills, such as the 13.3-point quad axel, over the difficult-to-measure ones. Adam Rippon was bested by the game of points, but what I love about him is how he can never be truly bested. He knows how good he is, despite what the points say.

A system of points turns people into point chasers. Figure skaters now have to be trick ponies, racking up the high-point jumps.

In the classroom, points turn school into a game where the end goal is the accumulation of points. Students try to get just enough points to earn the grade that they want. If they are missing a few needed points, they attempt to squeeze them out through begging or extra credit. I remember a student from several years ago who confronted me every day after class, claiming that he had turned in a 2-point homework assignment that I knew he hadn’t done. He was desperate, having realized that 2 points was the difference between a C and a D.

This student drove me absolutely crazy, and what I wanted most was for him to drop my class.  But we can’t blame these students for what we created.

After using a system of points for almost two decades, I finally threw it out completely three years ago. A classroom without points is disorienting to students, in a good way. The game board dissolves in front of them, and they are left wondering what their new goal is. Students must now ask themselves, what is the “point” of school, if there are no points, no numbers to rack up?

For some students, the absence of points frees them to finally make their own choices about their learning. Here’s a comment from one such student:

Before your class when I had been given an essay to write, I wrote my essay [how] I thought the teacher would want so that I got a good grade on it. Your class, however, doesn’t have a definitive grade until the very end, so it left me questioning how I should write my essays.  At first I just wrote how I had done in high school but soon started to change my writing style. I started to write how I wanted, and I found that I actually don’t mind writing papers anymore.

Just as Adam Rippon’s skating cannot be reduced to a cold number, so our students are not their points. Yet students commonly see points as a reflection of their value. They see the number as a mark of who they are, and anything less than 100 means that they are deficient in some way. One student told me, “If I get a low score on an assignment, this has caused me to think I’ll never grasp a subject. I feel like grades demoralize us and open the door for doubt and fear of certain subjects to set in.” One can see here how low rankings do not motivate students; rather, they often cause the opposite.

When I share my no-points system with other teachers, I’m met with extreme skepticism. No one wants to let go of points. Why? I think it’s in part because points are a tool of well-meant control. We can use points to try to convince students to do unpleasant work or to behave in a certain way. We can assign extra credit to encourage students to attend an event that may be beneficial to their learning. We can use points to get our students’ attention, to strike a little helpful fear in their hearts, so that they might prepare more, study more, do better. Most of us have good intentions when we use points.

When I first threw points out of my classroom, it felt like teaching with no hands. I couldn’t play the carrots and sticks game anymore. I had to ask myself what was really important for my students. I had to dig deep to find creative ways to motivate my students. I had to let the material do the talking. If I couldn’t get my students intrinsically interested in what I was teaching, well, what was I doing anyway? In a system of no points, my students’ job is harder, but mine is harder, too.

But it is worth it. Teaching without points reconnects me to why I chose this work in the first place. I can have more fun out there, and in turn, students have more fun, too. There was always an icky feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I held up grades as a threat to my students. I don’t have that feeling anymore. When my students do an activity in the classroom or write an essay, they don’t do it for points, they do it for learning. This means that I have to be better at explaining the why behind what we are doing. I have to be mindful of only assigning work that truly helps my students learn. I have to work hard to earn their trust.

Students actually like learning. We have to believe that. Intrinsic interest in learning—it’s in there, sometimes way down deep, in every one of them. It’s not easy to coax this interest out, but points will not help with that. On the tough days, maybe we can channel Adam Rippon. We can go out there and shine some love in the classroom, knowing that the points do not add up to who we are.



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