Alfie Kohn’s article The Case Against Grades reminded me of a moment from about a decade ago, when I received one of the loudest “wake-up” calls in my life from my then-10-year-old daughter. At the time, I had been an absentee parent for six years due to work responsibilities, and was getting “re-acquainted” with the responsibilities of parenthood – including monitoring how my kid is doing at school.
Like most parents, I am particularly fond and very proud of my daughter. Even as a little girl, I found her to be sharp and articulate, and she could certainly hold her own even when engaging in conversations with adults. In short, I firmly believed that my daughter is one of the most intelligent kids in the world (don’t we all?). So I was very surprised when, after my first parent-teacher meeting, I found out that she was behind in Math and Science. I sat there in disbelief for quite some time that it overshadowed the fact that her teacher also told me that she was capable of handling more advanced course work in English and Literature.
I am an engineer. While I did not particularly care for Math and Science (wait, so why am I an engineer? That’s a whole other post in itself), I had always done pretty well in these courses, and I expected my daughter to do the same. When we got home, silly me launched into a tirade that began with “When I was your age… I could do this, and this, and this…” (I was not yet teaching at this point, so maybe I did not know any better?) After I finished my “speech,” my daughter looked me and said: “But Mama, childhood is a journey, not a race.”
Boom. I had no comeback. Granting that the phrase she just told me is the mantra that her school believed in (she’s smart, but no, she did not come up with that on her own), hearing it from her got me thinking about my own experience with school and learning, and whether that was really the kind of learning experience that I would also like her to have. Did it really matter whether my 10-year-old could do exactly what 10-year-old me could do?
Growing up, my most memorable things about school were the “accolades” that were up for grabs at the end of the school year. I always made sure I got a hefty slice of that pie, which my parents dutifully enshrined on a wall in our house for everyone to admire. I picked up a number of things along the way, sure (such as rattling off the multiplication table at the drop of a hat), but at the time they did not seem as important as the shiny things with my name on them hanging on the wall. During the academic year, I fixated on being able to get certain things and maintain certain grades, so much so that when I am unable to achieve a goal or two, the frustration can overshadow everything else.
In contrast, my daughter did not need to concern herself with such matters. When she was 7 years old, I was temporarily assigned to Phoenix, Arizona, and she spent part of that academic year with me. Since the academic year in the Philippines followed a different schedule, she was unable to enroll in the same school that I went to as a child upon our return, as they had strict guidelines regarding admission and she had missed so much. Instead, my parents found a small school that could accommodate her. This school had a “non-traditional” philosophy and approach to education; instruction and assessment were carried out differently. Even their classrooms did not look like the stereotypical classroom with rows of armchairs; children sat in round tables that allowed them to interact and work together. At the end of the school year, there was no program to honor a select few who achieved certain feats over others, but a general celebration of what each student has found meaningful to them. They did not show off the shiny things with their names on them that parents pinned on shirts (and that I loved so much growing up), but portfolios of the work that they have done and what these meant to them.
Over the years (after that first wake-up call ten years ago) my narrative for “When I was your age…” changed. Interestingly enough, they aligned with some of Kohn’s conclusions about grades. I saw that my daughter was truly passionate and interested in learning certain things (Math, unfortunately, was always a hopeless case and was not pursued with the same passion as Theater and Literature). When I was her age, I, on the other hand, worked so hard on making sure that I got excellent grades in everything that I had no time to really focus on what I loved and was interested in. She was more attuned to her strengths, weaknesses, and interests, and exercised a higher level of discernment in making decisions, such as those she made when she prepared for college. In contrast, my decision-making process mostly consisted of the prestige that I could get. In college, that meant reveling in the admiration of those who held my courage and persistence as the only female electrical engineering student in my class in high regard.
I do realize, though, that the question of grades and assessment is more complicated than “to grade, or not to grade,” and that not everyone who shared my experience went through life and made decisions the way I did. I do not trivialize the significance of grading and assessment and the roles that these have played, and will continue to play, in education, when carried out mindfully and appropriately. While there are a number of things that made my daughter’s learning experience more meaningful than mine, there are also pitfalls that I will not get into now, or this post will never get done. There are many things to consider, complexities that need to be navigated around. For me, though, an important step to take is to consider learning as a journey – one that is to be taken at a pace that makes sense to one’s unique circumstances, and to be enjoyed to the fullest extent that it can be, allowing for the development of passions, exploration of interests, and even committing mistakes that can be turned into valuable opportunities for growth. It should not be a race that one competes in against peers, or standards, or those who came before you (a.k.a. your mom). Because at the end of the day, what do letters and numbers mean? What defines who we are as individuals, serves as evidence of how much we know and how competent we are, and how valuable our contributions to society can be?
It has been said that “kids say the darndest things.” Mine told me to chill-ax and let her learn and grow up in her own way, at her own time. With that one statement, she inadvertently encouraged me to look beyond letters and numbers and report cards, and appreciate who she is through way she carries herself and relates to others, and how she handles the joys and challenges that she encounters. She will be 21 in a few months, and I have to say, I am glad she stood up for herself and journeyed through life, not harried through it. It might not work the same way for everyone, but at least in our case – I’m glad I listened.