Non-Zero Sum School

by admin on April 1, 2011

One of the adjustments that’s occurred between the first and second class of SVA’s Interaction Design program is the doing away with of grades. Individual students of the second class can request (opt-into) grades from faculty but none have done so to my knowledge.

This policy has been received with mixed reviews. One redeeming quality of grades is that they give students a metric for personal success, a metric they have likely become accustomed to over the course of their previous academic experience. Given that interaction design is a doers discipline (by that I mean that success depends not necessarily on how well you’ve absorbed the material, but rather how effectively you can apply your talent/knowledge/experience to real-world problems) any reassurance from grades would be misleading.

More importantly though, after listening to Robert Wright discuss Nonzero I’ve come to believe there’s an even stronger reason for not providing grades in this particular environment. Grades are designed to stratify a class of students so that future employers and academics can have insight into how students compare. Teachers that use grades often go to lengths to make sure this stratification occurs by employing techniques such as the bell curve. The downside is that students’ awareness of this naturally creates a competitive, non-collaborative environment.

In contrast, in a class of 15 design students who will likely become colleagues in the future, it’s advantageous for the institution to create an environment that most resembles a nonzero sum game, an ecosystem in which the success of any one student correlates positively with the success of any other students. The dominating psychology be it zero-sum or non-zero will directly affect students’ willingness to work in groups, share ideas, and to generally be productive in a creative environment.

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