Darius pointed out to me yesterday that giving grades to students is a lot like giving incentive pay to workers. The ever-eloquent Joel "On Software" Spolsky has recently (and not-so-recently) written about why incentive pay is bad. In short, it insults the worker by implying that they're only trying to do a good job because they want the money (rather than the more powerful incentive of taking pride in their work and genuinely wanting to do a quality job for its own sake), and it also encourages workers to "game the system" to get more pay while actually doing a less optimal job in the process.
Let's suppose that both Darius and Joel are correct. What are the implications for teaching, if the necessity of giving grades takes the students' focus away from the theoretical goal of actually learning something?
In part, this is why I'd like to make my grading system playful. By doing something mildly ridiculous, I'd like students to forget about the grades and concentrate more on the class itself. (I realize I'm running the risk of having students focus more on grades since the system is novel. I'll let you know how it goes.)
I'll take this a step further and tie the discussion to games. In the early days when video arcades roamed the earth, every game had a scoring system and a high score list. But did we actually play the games to get on the high score list, or did we play because they were fun? Did high scores actually make the games less satisfying, by implying that we were just playing for the score, rather than the sheer joy of shooting countless waves of aliens?
I'm not sure if that's the case or not, but games have definitely moved away from scorekeeping over the last decade. (Of the ten games I'm playing right now, only one of them has any kind of scoring system.) The focus nowadays is usually on "beating the game", and even then the player is often encouraged to go back and do it again with a higher level of mastery -- time attacks, higher difficulty modes, hidden secrets, unlockables, and so on. Essentially, games have evolved from letter grades to pass/fail... with the option to do extra work to earn honors credit!
I feel like there's some universal connection here that's just beyond my grasp, something that suggests a better way to evaluate classes than the standard grading system. Any thoughts?