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.
Thanks for sharing this story. It’s amazing how kids can put these type of situations in a new perspective. I enjoyed when you remarked that learning is a journey, rather than a race– this is so true, and something that is easily forgotten (I forget this all the time). Sometimes people have difficulty looking past letter/number grades to realize the value of what they are learning. Looking back, I can think of many instances where I was more concerned with my grade than the information I was actually learning. I’d imagine that an alternative grading solution, much like your daughter’s “non-traditional” school, would make a huge difference in students who think this way.
Thank you for sharing the story about your daughter. I think what her school was trying to instill in her was the value of being a lifelong learner. I feel that a lot of people go through the school years with the mindset that it will all be over soon. Meanwhile, people like me see the upcoming years as opportunities to continue to learn. I am always up for something new, and I know others share this feeling.
That being said, I wonder if there is a happy medium somewhere where students are individualized based on their strengths/weaknesses while still being assessed in some manner. I am worried about students who only focus on their strengths. In gifted education, there are two schools of thought regarding what is best for a student’s development. The first is for students to advance to a higher level. The second is that that student spread out horizontally and diversify. I tend to follow the second school of thought. I think we as learners should cherish our strengths AND our weaknesses and find that happy medium.
“We as learners should cherish our strengths and our weaknesses…” I love how you put that Meghan. There is joy to be found along so many paths. When we remember no to value ourselves only in terms of how we compare to others, but to value our own progress and change over time, then we are free to explore even the things we do not excel at free from fear of failure. 🙂
What a wonderful story. So many things we can learn from the kids to bring back to our classrooms. I have always felt that teaching is a lot like parenting, and much of the things we do in our classrooms are for the benefit of our “kids”.
Similar as when we are parents, we as teachers have a very hard time letting go. We would like our students to don’t make mistakes, and to do exactly what we expect them to do. However, when we let go, and realize that learning is on the agency of the learner and let them make mistakes and both (instructor and students) take the focus out of the outcome but put it in the process amazing things happen.
While I am not yet a parent, I am a daughter and I love this post so much! I too am an engineer, but when I was in the 4th grade I failed math (they give F’s to fourth graders?). I had difficulty telling time and doing division. This grade coupled with prevailing stereotypes about gender and subject strength put me in the mindset that I would never be good at math.
My mother always meant well by telling me, she wasn’t good at math either so it was okay that I was performing poorly in this area. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized we don’t inherit our parent’s intellectual strengths. If we seem to “inherit” these qualities it’s more likely due to long-term exposure.
People learn differently and it should be a team effort (teacher, parent, student) to figure out strategies for the student to best succeed in the particular subject area. As we mentioned in the mindful learning lessons last week, sometimes practice really does make perfect when it comes to understanding a fundamental method (like algebra, calculus, etc. ) but in other cases, more applied examples may be better. I’m married to a chemist, we often do demonstrations to introduce the ideal gas law or other chemical reactions (lots of explosions and fire typically – https://flic.kr/p/J9iQPa).
While I believe there may be a time and place for assessment, I have to ask myself “what are the goals of assessment?”, “what are the goals of learning?”, and “where is there intersectionality between these goals?”
I find value in grades in tracking one’s own improvement over time, that shows learning; for example, if you’re in a technical writing class and your first submission is garbage, don’t expect a good grade, but expect to improve.
I really enj0y your story. I feel like, parents (most of them) are often put too much expectation and pressure on kids and hope that they can handle everything as long as they can follow the teachers/adults’ instruction. However, don’t parents expect too much for kids to be perfect on everything? In such a fancy and unlimited world of knowledge, it is so hard to be expert on everything. We adults have limitations, so as our little kids. We should provide them with more resource and opportunity to learn and master. However, we should also respect their decision of exploring the childhood journal so that they can develop their sincere interest in adventurous learning.
Thanks for sharing.
I loved this Michelle! I still can’t believe I haven’t met your daughter yet but I love how her expierence was able to help you reshape your thoughts about learning. I was very much the same way as you were growing up so her reminder and your revelation about learning really being a journey was one I could really relate to. If we take that approach in our classes, instead of maybe considering it a sprint for the one semester we have them, how would our classes look differently? How would our grading? Lots of good things to think about and consider. Thank you for your insights. 🙂
Thank you for sharing Michelle! I can relate so much to your story growing up getting awards for academic achievement and even ending up choosing engineering (I did like math growing up though 🙂 ) and I am just now discovering how much of that was based on my experiences growing up. I start thinking about the paths that I didn’t explore as much for being so focused on the math and sciences even though my interests were very broad and I thoroughly enjoyed the arts. I am thinking about reinvesting some time indulging in the arts whenever I get a chance just to explore a bit 🙂
It is very nice to hear your and your daughter’s story has a happy ending when it comes to not letting certain assessments tell the whole story or even direct it in a particular way. Thanks again for posting!
Thank you for sharing one of the lessons your daughter taught you. What a wonderful school to instill that philosophy in its students. While I know that grades can be damaging to student’s self-esteem, I am not convinced that tossing them out is the answer. I think that the meaning of grades comes from the philosophy of learning through which they are interpreted. In a philosophy like your daughter’s, a grade is just a measure along a path of learning. And everyone does not have to get an A (or a B) to be successful!
It was a pleasure reading your story! I really like how your daughter said that childhood is a journey not a race! That is the truth about life, it’s more of a journey. It should be all about learning about your passions and interests. However, from my experience, it is much easier and more time effect to evaluate someone base on quantitative data rather than qualitative data. That data might not be a full representation of the person’s capabilities but it does measure their commitment and motivation. I feel like the grades is what get a person an interview, while the “journey” is what allow the person to land the position that they want.
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