The Essense of Learning

Grades seem to get in the way.
Thursday, December 01, 2005

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert Pirsig talks about the effect of grades on student behavior, attitude and performance. He tells a story of a college rhetoric professor who experimented with withholding grades for a semester. The experiment ended with great results, with all students eventually “scoring” where they normally would have but actually learning in the process. He gives a hypothetical example of a student in a normal system who works only for grades and becomes distracted by the “carrot” so that he does not learn at all, and a student in a gradeless system who drops out with a lack of motivation but then ends up returning to school later in life with an intense desire to learn, eventually “performing” better than he would have in the graded system.

This is an interesting allegory for me, as I feel like most of what I learned in high school and college has gone in one ear and out the other, whereas what I have learned in my working life has stayed with me and motivated me to learn more. I find now that I go on learning sprees, last year delving into deep technical knowledge, and this year exploring business practices. I have even gone so far as reading about the mechanics of cycling when I was riding on a regular basis. I find this style of learning much more satisfying and hope that the knowledge is sticking with me more than my rote memorization of trees as identified by their leaves back in high school biology.