Education is in many respects an unusually static sector, particularly given the incredibly high stakes involved: nothing less than the well-being (or at least the optimal functioning) of large parts of (post-)modern societies. So it was with genuine interest that we at Mediolana read of a novel approach to the field. Everyone Starts With an A, a report released by the Royal Society of Arts in both the UK and Germany in March 2014, contains a groundbreaking proposal to raise the attainment levels of low-income students: making the highest grade the default mark for every student at the start of the academic year, and focusing students’ attention on maintaining that mark.
Liberally borrowing from the über-sexy field of behavioural economics, this idea essentially constitutes the application of loss aversion theory to education: humans are thought of as responding much more strongly to the stimuli of potential losses than to gains. As the Times Educational Supplement has recently noted, experiments have shown that this approach can be beneficial to students’ grades.
The aim of this proposal is doubtless noble; it is true, as the report’s co-author Louise Bamfield has posited, that the often appalling attainment levels of those British students from lower income groups ‘is something that the UK needs to shift’. However, we see at least three potential issues with this model which do not yet appear to have made their way into the literature:
- Defensive Education. Giving every student a top grade at the start of the year may engender an unintended shift in emphasis within the educational process as learners concentrate on keeping what they already have to begin with. In particular, it could lead to a new set of risk-averse academic norms as students avoid doing anything which could be controversial or radically different, lest it jeopardise their precious ‘A’. This potential consequence needs to be studied much more seriously, as it could have huge implications for the entire way academic work is conceptualised and monetised.
- Pressure on Markers. While it is almost certainly true that grade inflation has become a genuine problem in the United Kingdom over the last generation or so, making A grades the default position might make it even more difficult for those marking assessments – including teachers and examiners – to avoid contributing to it: taking away a superlative mark could be perceived as punitive and as something to be avoided. Conversely, students may feel cheated by having something which they once had taken away from them, leading to stark tensions and perhaps even open conflict in the classroom.
- Cheapening the Experience. It would be incorrect and unfair to dismiss this new approach as being emblematic of an ‘All Must Have Prizes’ mentality which is so often inaccurately ascribed to various entities; nevertheless, it must be admitted that sprinkling A-grades like confetti at the start of every academic year risks depreciating the value of great evaluations. If a student can receive the best possible mark simply by turning up – and be fully aware that regardless of what they do, they will again be given the same mark at the start of the following year – this could place a large question mark next to vast stretches of the entire academic experience.