The catch is that fear of negative outcomes has been repeatedly shown to be a major impediment to learning. A survey of students at the University of Cape Town found that stress and fear of failing tests led to “classic symptoms of procrastination and avoidance,” confusion and low self-esteem. “ … [I]t’s one of those things where if I have to fail a test, I’m Like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t fail a test.’ It’s like a really serious strain,” one subject reported. Another showed the classic habit of grade-weighted failure leading to disengagement: “But I just didn’t like the fact that I had failed, so I just moved on to something else.” These responses are echoed by a number of studies that show students’ willingness to take on challenging tasks diminishes when grades are involved, but without grades, students left on their own tend to seek out more challenging problems. …

Free schools have taken the gradeless structure even further, treating the school as an open space where students are not only allowed to self-direct but are given equal responsibility in the organization and rule-making of the school itself. The Summerhill School in England is one of the most recognizable and longest-running, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill. Summerhill is built around the idea of creating stable, happy, and compassionate humans capable of filling any role in society—a janitor being no less a success than a doctor. In place of dedicated courses, students are free to follow their own interests while teachers observe and nudge them toward new ways of thinking about what they’re drawn to. Students with an interest in cooking, for instance, might learn the basics of chemistry by way of thickening a sauce. Those drawn to playing soccer might learn to improve their game with some fundamental principles of Newtonian physics.