I hate to say I told you so but…

I read and listen to books about happiness, success and effectiveness.  One common thread in all is the need to learn to ignore the opinions of others.  Now on to a related subject.

I noticed on the walls at one of my schools new posters created by 8th graders about honesty, integrity, consequences of lying and such.  I asked a fellow teacher “What’s up?”  I’m curious because I give little soapbox speeches regularly on the subject but often felt like I was the only one doing so.  To see another teacher having the kids explore the topic surprised me.  As it turns out, a good portion of the eighth grade class was busted for cheating, and got a lesson on integrity.

Teachers and parents are surprised to hear their kids, or nearly an entire class is cheating.    With the current system putting so much emphasis on grades, cheating should be expected.  Ask a kid that cheats why he cheats, and I have, here are the answers they come up with.  “My parents will kill me if I get anything under a ‘B’.  “I get $5 for every A” and on the high school level, you will hear “I have to get a scholarship to go to college.” What isn’t said but I believe is an unspoken reason is “I want people to think I’m smart.” or the opposite, “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid.”

Two of the most powerful books I’ve read begin to provide understanding of the problem and the solution.  “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown and “Mindset” by Carel Dweck are a must read for parents and teachers alike.

In a nutshell, most schools consist of a culture where grades matter more than learning.  While not stated clearly, the message is this.  Grades determine who is smart, and who isn’t, and we tell students that grades determine who will get scholarships, hired, who will succeed, who will thrive.  In many school cultures, there is constant comparison, followed by reinforcement of the superiority of those with the higher grades, and the humiliation of those that don’t get the high grades. The result is a large portion of students that walk around convinced they aren’t smart, and even worse, aren’t good enough.

I had a student come to me recently in tears because she was getting a “B”.  No amount of consolation that a “B” is better than average would help.  Other students, after neglecting their homework for the whole semester, then want to know what extra credit they can do to bring up their grade.  I answer, develop the skills you would have in the last 18 weeks if you had done the work, which of course is impossible.  Next semester, I suggest you do the work. Disheartened that there is no quick fix, no easy way out, or a lifeline to acquire that much desired grade despite having not worked for it…I roll my eyes and wonder what planet they are from.

What would enable a highly intelligent, high achieving, capable student near to top of her class to cheat?  The lure of valedictorian is the gold ring, the ticket to scholarships and accolades. It was a few years ago but the valedictorian was known by his/her peers to be a regular cheater and a verbal bully.  Teachers never suspected it, and even when informed by other students wouldn’t believe it.  The reason I do believe it is the integrity of my source, a student who’s integrity was so strong, she would never consider cheating herself. She did however resent the fact that the cheater got away with it.

My students look at me in dismay, and wonder what planet I live on when I say “Grades don’t matter.”  But I explain further, learning matters.  Knowing how to learn matters.  It is here that the Growth Mindset comes into play.  The fixed mindset values the opinions of others, and grades are just that.  Either the opinion of the teachers evaluation, or even if it is a data score, it is the opionion of those that will interpret that score, e.g., peers, parents and teachers and colleges.  Fixed mindset says, I will do anything to get approval, even if it means cheating and lying about my grade.  In hopeless situations, a person gives up, using an alibi of “I could have gotten an “A” but I didn’t try.”  A growth mindset says “I’m here to learn.” Learning involves embracing challenges, putting forth necessary effort, exploring strategies to improve when the feedback or data (grades) suggest lack of understanding.  Understand that grades are nothing more than just feedback, not a value statement.  Grades tell us if we missed the mark, like an arrow shot off center, and should signal the archer to try a different strategy.

I tell my students that when I got serious about learning, my grades improved.  My second go around in undergraduate school, I knew that grades didn’t count.  I was after all training to be a teacher, and I had to really know this stuff so I could teach it.  I honestly didn’t care if I got a “C” but if I did my best to learn, then the “C” didn’t matter. Not surprisingly, when I got serious about learning, I rarely got anything less than an “A”.  Part of getting serious about learning for me involved reading a book and implementing effective studying skills, and teaching myself memory techniques.

If it ever happened, I don’t remember.  “How were your grades in elementary and high school” was not a question I had to answer in a job interview.  Instead, I had to demonstrate that I could learn how to do the job as expected, be responsible, accept feedback (without taking it personally) and of course, demonstrate integrity.

What do we really need to be teaching our kids anyway? Are we teaching them that the grades are the end all?  Or should we be teaching them the value of learning, knowing how to learn, embracing challenges, accepting criticism as data and has nothing to do with their value as a human being, and integrity?  If so, that’s a pretty tall order with the current system of education we currently offer.

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