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Grades Go Away; Learning Lasts Forever

October 11, 2019
By Jay Adams

We’ve just wrapped up our first quarter here at Edgewood; by now you should have received your child’s report card, so I wanted to take a moment to talk about grades, a necessary evil.

I made a big deal in the last blog post about the way colleges are complaining about “underconstructed” students coming to their campuses -- students with excellent grades, but little ability to think, reason, or synthesize information at a high cognitive level.

Since that post, I’ve been reading another excellent book: “Why They Can’t Write,” by John Warner. The author is a former college writing instructor; he currently serves as an educational blogger at Inside Higher Education, edits for McSweeney’s, and writes for The Chicago Tribune. 

The book is excellent; if you’re interested in thinking about why school works the way it does, and how we could do better, it’s well worth your time. 

If you don’t have the time (or interest) to read the whole thing, I wanted to point you at two passages  that I found especially noteworthy:

PASSAGE 1: “Given the systems we’ve created, what incentives do students have to value “learning” over grades? None that I can see.”

I think this matters immensely, particularly as students bring home report cards. On a report card, there are boxes. Inside those boxes are some numbers. And somehow, those numbers are supposed to be a crystallization of 45 days of class in a subject like English or Geometry.

How we talk about those numbers with our children is going to shape the way they feel about them, and it has the potential to distort the reason we’re sending them to school in the first place. If we tell them that we’re upset about the number, they will be incentivized to do whatever it takes to make that number go up. It’s a simple management principle: you get more of what you measure – but when it comes to school, the thing we’re measuring isn’t always very easy to measure. 

I’m sure I’m not supposed to say it out loud, but there are plenty of decent reasons to have a C for the quarter in chemistry:

  • Maybe you failed the first test horribly, but you made a B on the second and an A on the third.
  • Maybe you do fine on assignments where you have a whole night to work the problems out, but you struggle when a test puts you on a timed deadline.
  • Maybe you were pulling a solid B, but your grandmother died and you struggled to get motivated for the final test.

I write all of this simply to say: we must resist the temptation to focus so hard on a single number that we lose sight of the goal.

The goal is to create students who have diverse and intense interests in the world, who love to learn about those interests, and who are excited about heading out of high school with the skillset necessary to follow those interests through life. And that is a very difficult thing to pin down in a set of numbers.

PASSAGE 2: “Motivation hinges on three conditions: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy means having sufficient freedom to pursue our own curiosities driven by individual desires. Mastery means we are motivated by a desire to achieve goals of our own design. Purpose means we believe what we are doing is important and meaningful to ourselves, to the world at large, or both.”

If you’re looking for something to talk about instead of just the numbers, talk about these things. What are our kids curious about? What do they want to learn? What do they want to accomplish? How do they plan to fill the years after they leave high school?

All teaching is dependent on relationship; all relationship is dependent on conversation; and all quality conversations lead to connection. If we can get them to connect the things they do each day with the life they’re going to live from 18 to 88, the learning (no matter what the grades say) will take care of itself.

And if you’d like to talk about how we can continue to shape the education we offer at Edgewood toward a more holistic approach, I’d love to have you join the conversation at our next Coffee with Coach Adams on October 23 from 7:15 - 8:15 a.m. Click here to RSVP.

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