Suppose you are a student in a high school or college course and a magic fairy offers you the following choice: (1) You will learn the material in the course well, but will get a low grade (a D). Or (2) you will not learn the material at all, but will get a high grade (an A). Which would you choose? Be honest.
Nearly all students (except for a few rebels), would unhesitatingly choose Alternative 2. Students are rational beings. They know that school is about grades, not learning. If they ever need to know the material they can always learn it on their own, in a far more efficient way than they can at school. On the other hand, they can never erase that awful D. It would be stupid to choose Alternative 1. By the time they have reached high school, all students know that.
Schools are for showing off, not for learning. When we enroll our children in school, we enroll them into a never ending series of contests—to see who is best, who can get the highest grades, the highest scores on standardized tests, win the most honors, make it into the most advanced placement classes, get into the best colleges. We see those grades and hoops jumped through as measures not only of our children, but also of ourselves as parents. We find ways, subtly or not so subtly, to brag about them to our friends and relatives.
All this has nothing to do with learning, and, really, we all know it. We rarely even bother to think about what our children are actually learning in school; we only care about the grades. We, the parents, maybe even more than our kids, think it would be stupid for our kids to choose Alternative 1 over Alternative 2. We would forbid them from making that choice, if we could.
If schools were for learning rather than showing off, we would design them entirely differently. They would be places where people could follow their own interests, learn what they wanted to learn, try out various careerpaths, prepare themselves for the futures that they wanted. Everyone would be doing different things, at different times, so there would be no basis for comparison. People would learn to read when they wanted to learn to read, and we would help them do it if they wanted help. The focus would be on cooperation, not on competition. That’s what occurs at certain democratic schools, which are for learning, not for showing off, and such schools have proven remarkably effective.
One thing we know about learning is that it is inhibited by the kinds of pressures that we use at schools to motivate performance. Many psychological experiments have shown that contests and evaluations of all sorts lead those who already know well how to perform a task to do it even better than they otherwise would, but has the opposite effect on people who don’t know it so well.