by: James Chia
There is chatter about how grades don’t matter; that perhaps we should move away from awarding marks and grades to our learners. This has been raised in Singapore where we are based, and some other economies.
Critics point to Finland’s much-lauded education system, where the focus centres on learning how to learn, rather than marks and grades. Students in Finland go through a comprehensive academic programme that encourages curiosity, lateral thinking and life skills. A culture of lifelong learning continues throughout adult life, as the individual graduates into the workplace.
Yet ignoring grades misses the point, as GRADES DO MATTER.But perhaps not in the way that we use them now.
Grades are FEEDBACK
Grades give feedback to the learner and feedback to the educator.
As a Learner: When I do badly on a test or assessment, it is feedback to me that I did not understand the material well enough. I should go through the material again, maybe seek help from my teacher or trainer. Perhaps I should work harder. Maybe I should give up and look for something else that I am better in.
As an Educator: If the entire cohort does badly for a test, it is feedback to me that perhaps I should relook at the parts that everyone did poorly for. Maybe I should think about covering certain concepts again, think of a different way to explain this part of the material that many in the class/course did not seem to understand.
It’s no different from sports, where week-in, week-out, athletes and teams compete for a good ‘grade’, which is to beat the opponent. Better sides (like Tottenham Hotspur 😊) win in style, though there’s no bonus grade for exciting play.
A world without grades?
Now imagine a sporting world with no gold medals. No silver, no bronze. Participation certificates at the Olympics; every athlete returns with the same certificate.
Imagine if the English Premier League doesn’t keep score, and there are no winners and losers. That FIFA gives every World Cup team the same medal. Just for showing up.
Hardly the real world, is it?
The real world doesn’t give us participation prizes just for showing up. The real world gives us grades — constant feedback, whether we like it or not.
CEOs are graded by their ability to strategise, execute and deliver performance. Politicians by their ability to serve the citizenry. Fund managers by their ability to earn above-market returns. Carpenters by the quality of their furniture. Software engineers by the ability to ship working code. Movie Directors by the reception of their movies. Startups by their ability to turn product into business. Each and every one of us by our ability to do our job.
We cannot escape the reality that performance matters. The ‘grades’ we get through the metrics we define and are defined for us, are the feedback to us to keep doing what is working, and to change tack when something’s not turning out so well.
Those who respond to this feedback well, would hopefully turn in better performance (and ‘grades’) at the next opportunity. They should be rewarded more than the ones who did not respond to the feedback.
So it is facetious to tell our children that grades do not matter. Because in so doing, we are not preparing them for life.
Grades SHOULD NOT BE JUDGMENT
The issue with grades right now is how we view them, and how we use them.
Grades DO matter, but grades are not THE ONLY THING that matters.
Singaporeans gripe about the Primary School Leaving Examination (“PSLE”). Currently, each student taking the PSLE is awarded a numerical T-score. This score determines the Secondary school that the student is eligible to enter, as admission is primarily based on the scores of those applying. So the PSLE grade is a first-cut filtering tool.
Singapore’s Ministry of Education recently tweaked the PSLE ever so slightly, where from 2021 onwards, students are not awarded a numerical score but instead are given a grade banding.
It’s a start, but doesn’t go far enough. Now students aren’t sieved down to the individual point, but to the individual grade band.
The primary issue for me and many who think Singapore can do better, is the PSLE is still perceived as a single high-stakes examination.
Do well at the PSLE, enter a top secondary school, and your academic journey (and perhaps career) is laid out for you. Do poorly at the PSLE, and you’re routed to technical education, and the road ahead becomes bumpier than the other kid (though “there are still many paths to success”).
It may or may not be true, but sometimes perception shapes reality. And parents have to bear a large part of this responsibility.What is worse is this warped mindset sometimes carries over to the workplace and shapes hiring practices. And the fixation on grades carries on…
Which is wrong. Good grades should not give a free pass to the learner that one is set for life, nor should bad grades condemn one to failure forever.
For what if I was just a late bloomer? And what if I was always good at something else?
How do we do better?
1. Grading right.
Albert Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree, it will spend its whole life feeling stupid”.
If we take grades for what they are, which is feedback, then the challenge for education policy-makers is how to design grading systems that are appropriate for learners-in-question.
There’s good progress being made already, as education systems are becoming more flexible, with different tracks of learning for different types of learners. But more needs to be done.
This is true for academic learning, as well as learning in the workplace. At work, HR practitioners and line managers need to define the right metrics to ‘grade’ staff. Ultimately it needs to translate to business goals (which staff help organisations to achieve).
In the workplace learning arena where ArcLab operates, we encourage organisations to break training content down into modular pieces, or Nano Learning.
This allows staff to learn in bite-sizes, on-demand. The ‘grades’ given at the end of each learning module is specific to the single learning objective that HR, L&D and line managers have defined together. The employee (and the organisation) knows straightaway whether he/she ‘gets’ the material or not, and how to apply it towards his/her job role.
The ‘grade’ has become what it’s meant to be — feedback.
2. Giving room to fail. Really.
I have only skimmed the surface of ‘The Grades Matter’, where the current downsides negatively affects both academic students and workplace learners.
Grades DO matter — as FEEDBACK to the learner and the teacher/trainer. Feedback on what has been learnt and done well, and what hasn’t.
If we adopt this “Grades-as-Feedback” mindset, we can not only work together to define grading systems that can more appropriately measure learning, and also help those that don’t do well try again.
This needs everyone to play our part: Educators, Parents, Employers, Government and Individuals.
For one bad grade should never doom one to a lifetime of failure.
That — we at ArcLab will never accept.
by: James Chia, with advice & contributions from Huang Shao-Ning, Co-founder of AngelCentral & JobsCentral (any errors are James’)
A seasoned mid-career professional in her 40s recounted her recent experience applying to a few Public Sector roles in Singapore. To her surprise (and dismay), the hiring organisations requested for her educational qualifications all the way back to her GCE O-Levels. Without this information, she could not submit her job application.
Juxtapose this anecdote against the Singapore’s government’s exhortation to continually upskill and keep our knowledge current. The official message to employers and society (which we agree with):
Don’t view academic qualifications as the marker of success, embrace lifelong learning, be open to new career possibilities and opportunities that may come our way.
So the same government pushing citizens to move away from sole reliance on academic qualifications, still asks for these very qualifications when recruiting for public sector positions. It is especially strange that academic grades are still required in an application process for a mid-career position.
Returning to my anecdote, that mid-career individual’s O-Level results has zero bearing on her career performance, where she has proved her mettle through her 20 years of work experience. So there should be no reason for the job portals in question to demand this information as a mandatory submission. Importantly, getting that applicant’s O-Level results will not help the recruiter from assessing the applicant’s suitability for the position.
There are 2 ways to view this:
If we take the second view, then Public Sector hiring stakeholders should work together to remedy it more holistically.
The Public Sector is a large ship that takes some time to change course. While political and public sector leaders make the big-picture pronouncements, it takes time for that change to filter downwards and operationalised. Realistically, hiring frameworks and systems need some more time to be adjusted.
Yet adjust it must, and we offer several suggestions for Public Sector employers (and employers in general) to consider, to speed up this change.
“Papers, please”: A genuine rethink from a recruitment perspective
What is the best way to assess the suitability of job applicants?
1. Never use grades as a non-negotiable filtering tool for prospective candidates.
One of the contributors previously helped with a Public Sector project to to review post-graduate scholarship applicants. There was a particular candidate whom we assessed to be a poor fit for the scholarship programme (among other drawbacks, he was unable to speak nor articulate his views clearly). Yet the Public Sector body requested to “upgrade” him to a pass, SIMPLY BECAUSE he had a Degree with First Class Honours.
There ARE valid reasons for academic qualifications to be provided for specific jobs, e.g. medicine, accounting, professional engineering, especially for entry-level or early-career positions. In such situations, paper qualifications are useful as a minimum standard to prove basic technical competency.
In other contexts, e.g. roles where more analytical skills or communication skills are required, academic qualifications or grades are hardly useful to assess candidates’ suitability.
2. Make a more considered effort to PROPERLY PROFILE job requirements.
Employers (both Public & Private Sector) can start by quantifying the hard skills required for the role but also design better filtering mechanisms to assess candidates on the soft skills needed to execute the role effectively, e.g. a well-designed questionnaire or work-tests to suss out values / aptitudes that current top performers of the role possesses and hire following that pattern.
Work-trials (which our firm uses) are also a good alternative way for Employers to assess candidates’ competency and softer skills, such as communication skills and teamwork. Work-trials provide the same opportunity to the job applicant to assess suitability of the Employer and their comfort in working with potential colleagues.
WE HAVE SUGGESTED AN IDEAL SCENARIO.
The above will take skill, effort and courage(!) to translate into hiring frameworks. There will also need to be periodic reviews since skillset requirements change over time. One key challenge is how to quantify and effectively communicate the soft skills and “x-factor” required for a role into an advertised job description, and craft it into an interview / assessment framework.
So for a start, a lower-hanging fruit would be effectively quantifying the hard skills required for the role, and work with that as a baseline.
We are conscious that it will take more effort by Employers to operationalise these frameworks (we are Employers ourselves), but we believe the initial hard work will outweigh the time and re-hiring costs to the company of hiring the wrong person for the job, where costs include time wasted from staff turnover and the subsequent re-hiring needed.
In the long run, the hiring organisation wins as it will truly be hiring based on skills profile, resulting in better job hires and benefitting the organisation financially. This contrasts against the usual broad-brush academic qualifications and grades filter of job applicants, which gives the Employer little insight into competency.
Importantly, a move away from a blanket focus on paper qualifications puts the brakes on our country’s systematic discrimination against late-bloomers who may not do so well in the early years of their academic journey. It will also stop the relentless paper chase for academic qualifications’ sake.
There are many stories in industry (which both of us face as Employers) of polytechnic graduates “obsessed” to get a degree after one to two years of working and saving up. This phenomenon may serve to translate to a vicious cycle of more re-hiring and re-training costs for Employers. Such an obsession to get a Government-recognised degree at times could also sometimes totally blinker polytechnic graduates in their career planning, inadvertently leading to poor financial outcomes.
We recall the example of an ex-staff (fresh polytechnic graduate), who after one year of working with the firm, was accepted into a local university to read Electronic Engineering. This individual was working with us as a designer, and was in fact a very good one! However, for the sake of the “paper with the logo of a local university”, he suppressed his own professional and career interests and took on a student loan to do the engineering degree which was not in line with his interest at all. He gave up after one year and enrolled himself into a private university to study a creative discipline that was closer to his real interests. This individual wasted time and money, all for the (misguided) pursuit of a University Degree for its own sake.
The sad truth is that it was perfectly rational for the above-mentioned polytechnic graduate to “aspire” towards a University Degree.
For an employee-track career (unlike in entrepreneurship), university graduates have consistently advanced faster and higher than polytechnic graduates, and their salaries have grown more quickly. So these point towards getting that University Degree, because every Employer looks out for it, and reward those who possess them.
The media sometimes profiles non-graduates that have done well in their careers, e.g. the recent story of non-graduate school principals. Sadly, these stories only serve as the exceptions that prove the rule.
There are not yet any CONSISTENT examples of non-graduates rising to leadership roles in the Public Sector or professional corporate sphere (unlike in the business world where there are consistently a higher percentage of high-performing non-graduate entrepreneurs).
We look forward to the day where non-graduates in leadership roles are no longer newsworthy.
The other side of the coin is improving the skills-base of job-seekers. To that end, our SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore public agencies have rolled out a plethora of schemes that promote the continued improvement of indviduals’ skills to remain employable.
Flagship programme SkillsFuture was launched as a national lifelong learning movement to provide Singaporeans with the (quote) “opportunity to develop ourselves to the fullest, achieving skills competency and mastery”. The programme is intended to tangentially complement our traditionally rigourous (and perhaps ruthlessly efficient) academic education framework.
As of Feb 2018, ~300,000 individuals have utilised their SkillsFuture Credits for upskilling courses. So from a numbers perspective, there IS take-up, especially in infocomm technology (according to the Agency), which represents the jobs of the future, and which our economy lacks in our talent base.
From a scan of new programmes being offered by our tertiary and vocational learning institutions, the direction appears to be right. But only time will tell.
For now, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of SkillsFuture, as this will need more years of data. We will need to track end-outcomes, i.e. are employers now able to find the right fit of talent, and in sufficient numbers, to meet workplace needs, even as the advent of new technologies create new “industries” like e/m-commerce and fintech. These have required new skills and created demand for certain jobs, even as they in parallel create labour-efficiencies and reduce demand for other jobs, often structurally.
I believe that more thoughtfully-curated learning paths are required to train deeply-competent professionals in all disciplines. These will presumably need to be effected in collaboration with our tertiary institutions, which should be like the US or Israeli institutions that do not preclude non-alumni from participating.
We caution that SkillsFuture must not become a marketplace of entry-level courses, or we risk never being able to produce an adequately high-value and highly-trained workforce.
Nano-Credentials: Adding a Skills-based alternative / complement
As outlined, there are strong calls for a Skills-based framework to complement or serve as an alternative to academic qualifications. We believe this can be framed into a coherent accreditation framework, which we coin “Nano-credentials”
On this front, Singapore has its Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) which recognises skills and competencies of participants in approved training programmes.
There are also competing disparate verticals. For example, individual industries and associations may also provide their own form of accreditation. Tracking and recognition of such training and competency is less straightforward. Learners may also have to justify the courses undertaken to current or would-be employers.
Since no-one is presumably “ashamed” of our qualifications, I question if is there a better way to track and populate ALL our qualifications, achievements, skills into a “central database” for individual to “allow access” to selected parties, e.g. totally public, or only to companies one applies to for jobs etc.
In terms of tracking qualifications — should we also move away from just tracking only formal degrees and certifications, and are we able to create a centralised (or de-centralised(?)) Nano Credential framework that consolidates and maps skills that individuals have learnt from bite-sized courses which are contextual and on-demand?
I believe the answer is yes, especially as technology continues to improve. There are providers with technology that can help to coalesce and VERIFY all training and certifications centrally (or “de-centrally” — blockchain perhaps(?)).
The more able frameworks can also provide ways for individuals to assess current skills competencies and suggest upskilling pathways towards a desired goal, e.g. Head Chef at a leading hotel in 5–7 years. and work backwards from the desired end-outcome and provide recommendations to the individual.
Our belief is that the traditional ways of hiring are outdated. We particularly frown on the antiquated practice of would-be employers demanding for educational qualifications and grades, especially for mid-career positions.
I believe there are better ways for individuals to manage and provide their skills and qualifications to parties of THEIR choosing, through a consolidated skills assessment and accreditation framework.
The key goal that employers should aim for, and put our money and hiring decisions behind, is to hire based on skills rather than qualifications or grades. These need to be built into recruitment systems and job portals, and the philosophy OPERATIONALISED at the hiring manager level.
The Public Sector is a major employer in Singapore. Walking the talk sends a strong message to other employers and the job-seeking public that it is serious about “alternative pathways to success”.
I have faith that it can, and we’re ready to play our part.
Visit ArcLab to find out more about how we’re helping with Lifelong Learning and Skills-based hiring.
ArcLab’s Nano Learning platform empowers organisations to create effective training for employees. No coding needed.