What happens when you can't optimize for grades?


Aaron, Eric, and Angel did some weird learning last week. [1]

They had 3.5 days to:

  • define a problem they had never worked on;

  • prototype a solution; and

  • pitch their problem-solution set to a panel of CEOs.

The weird part?

They would not receive any kind of grade for their work.

What do you do when you need to learn without optimizing for a good grade? What do you do when you have to demonstrate that learning in a public setting, in front of experts—that is to say, with no safety net?

In a twenty-four hour period, Aaron, Eric, and Angel presented their work to peers and teacher-coaches 7 times. The first time, their problem was ill-defined and their prototype low-resolution. Things were not looking good for the CEO panel the next day.

But… they received KiSH feedback from their peers and coaches. Then they had an hour to huddle, decide what feedback to use, and improve their prototype.

Their second pitch was a little better, even better the third time, and so on. For their eighth and final pitch, to the CEO panel, they articulated a crystal clear problem and proposed a high resolution prototype.

What would they have done in school? Prepared for a test or essay—separately, not as a team—knowing they would get one shot. Under those conditions, their goal would be to optimize for the highest grade possible. If they happened to learn too, great.

But at Expeditionaries, Aaron, Eric, Angel didn’t have the option to optimize for a good grade.

Instead, they had to optimize for growth.

Which is why they quickly learned how to learn from feedback and use it to improve rapidly. [2]

Laszlo Bock, former head of People Operations (i.e., Chief Human Resources Officer) at Google and founder of Humu, has said,

“I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

Student won’t have the luxury of optimizing their personal or their professional lives for grades.

Is your school preparing them for that reality?


[1] Just two weeks left for the early bird 10% discount on Expeditions during the 2019-20 school year.

[2] Rather than using grades as targets, Expeditionaries uses a mastery-based approach to three foundational skills for social entrepreneurship: design thinking, character strengths, and presenting publicly.


Thank you for reading this post from Basecamp's blog, Ed:Future. Do you know someone who would find the Ed:Future blog worthwhile reading? Please let them know that they can subscribe here.

Christian Talbot