I am a big fan of organizational psychologist Adam Grant and his recent New York Times op-ed piece titled What Straight A Students Get Wrong. His thesis is that academic success is rarely a good indicator for success in one’s professional life.
Misplaced emphasis on A’s
Grant’s arguments are familiar and resonate with me on a host of levels. He notes that “A” students often have to limit their creativity in order to conform to the expectations of their teachers. In Grant’s words, too much academic ambition can stifle creativity. Grant notes that kids are kind of stuck. The college admission process still makes GPA an important factor in the applications process. Graduate and professional schools do, as well. Grant pushes higher education to look at grades a bit more holistically. I am not holding my breath, but I do think we can take some pressure off of students and help them focus on the joy of learning. This takes teacher creativity when thinking about assessing student learning, and it takes parents being able to stifle their more competitive instincts and trust their kids will be OK. We need to be thinking beyond college for our kids.
What happens with choice and creativity
As a teacher, I have always been oriented toward project-based learning, as I think it better engages students. When students have agency and choice and can use their creativity to demonstrate their learning, a few great things happen. One is that they might find a passion for an interesting and relevant topic. The second is that it taps into other skills that they will have to use in “real life.” We face all kinds of “tests” in life as adults. But, the last time I truly took a test was at the DMV. Most of the time, I am pressed to demonstrate mastery in public speaking or writing. In my classes, I typically have a few assignments that challenge students in ways that studying for a traditional test doesn’t. At my old teaching position, I remember putting together a debate on the Middle East peace process. Kids were divided into teams and had to make arguments responding to the Oslo Peace Accords. I remember a very “C” student having to debate a straight “A” student. Who do you think won the debate? While the “A” student came prepared with volumes of detailed note cards, that student got lost in the research and couldn’t make a compelling argument. Meanwhile, the “C” student—who clearly didn’t prepare as well, but understood the central issues, was able to make a compelling case that was far more persuasive. The “C” student, who spent more time socializing, was just better at connecting with an audience.
A singular focus on perfection
I remember being in graduate school and realizing in the opening meeting with my fellow incoming students that I was surrounded by people whose central purpose throughout their life was making straight A’s. It was like an all-star team of teacher’s pets. I went to elementary school in the 1970s during a time in which bullying and teasing were truly the norm. I remember telling my dad that my fellow graduate students seemed like kids who had finally found sanctuary after years in the wilderness of American education. I am sure some of those kids had a hard time. They were all perfectly nice and kind people, but few had developed any healthy outside interests, and most were a little overly obsessed with the study of history. We need these types of academics and experts. Yet, only four students in my entering class ended up getting their PhD’s.
Learning the hard way
If you looked at the academic credentials and backgrounds of those 14 students during my first year, you would not have expected me to be one of the success stories. I attribute it fully to my experience at an independent school in which I nearly flunked out in my Ninth Grade year. I learned grit the hard way. I learned about music and theater, which, besides making me a better human, prepared me for getting up in front of others. From sports I learned how to fail and how to work with others. From having small class sizes with amazing teachers, I learned how to reach out for help from adults. In high school, college, and graduate school, I got to know every teacher and every librarian well. They guided and mentored me. In short, they made it less about grades and outcomes and more about the process of problem solving. Graduate work and writing a dissertation can be a grind. But, it is also a test of whether one can be creative, original, disruptive, persistent, and tenacious: something that any aspiring educator or professor (or any leader) should strive to be.
Yes, grades matter but…
Grades matter, and it would be dishonest to say they don’t. But, they can come with a price. We know that too many students of this generation feel overwhelming anxiety about academic performance. Schools and families need to work together, understand the data, and make better decisions to support student learning and growth.