Open thread

Published by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2009 at 03:35 PM

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

I think that it stems from their K-12 experiences,” Professor Brower said. “They have become ultra-efficient in test preparation. And this hyper-efficiency has led them to look for a magic formula to get high scores.”

James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, said: “Students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work. There is a mentality in students that ‘if I work hard, I deserve a high grade.’“

In line with Dean Hogge’s observation are Professor Greenberger’s test results. Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.

This informal mission statement, along with special seminars for freshmen, is intended to help “re-teach students about what education is.”

The seminars are integrated into introductory courses. Examples include the conventional, like a global-warming seminar, and the more obscure, like physics in religion.

The seminars “are meant to help students think differently about their classes and connect them to real life,” Professor Brower said.

He said that if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.

Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes, New York Times


To have been accepted at one of the top schools means that a child has done what he was told, followed instructions, kept his eye on the prize, played the game, and won. But does it mean much more?

I did my teaching at Northwestern University, where most of the students had what I came to regard as “the habits of achievement.” They did the reading, most of them could write a respectable paper, many of them talked decently in response to my questions. They made it difficult for me to give them less than a B for the course. But the only students who genuinely interested me went beyond being good students to become passionate ones. Their minds, I could tell, were engaged upon more than merely getting another high grade. The number of such students was remarkably small; if I had to pin it down, I should say they comprised well under 3 percent, and not all of them received A’s from me.

— Joseph Epstein, Obama's Good Students: A dissent on the ‘valedictocracy’

 Thank you, Barbara, for sending me the link to the first article!


Comment by Mary E on February 20, 2009 at 05:23 PM

Another thought provoking article! Last week, I read the article, "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids" (from Scientific American) to which you provided a link. The article says to focus on effort. The snippets from your post today seem to focus on passion. I am still taking it all in.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2009 at 08:21 PM

mary, interesting point ..

here’s a quote from that article:

“As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it.”

so - learning is a more important goal than good grades - that fits with what these writers are talking about.

but - the idea that hard work = getting better at it .. does that morph into this idea that hard work = all that matters? that effort *equals* achievement?

everyone seems to agree that the K-12 good-grade mindset works against what we want from young adults.

carol dweck says - teach them that their minds are a muscle they can develop.

the NYT article describes students who think if they do that work they should get the good grade. to me, this describes someone who thinks it’s all about them -- my effort should determine my grade. period. what anyone else does doesn’t matter. it doesn’t matter where my work falls on the grand scale of life. i’m being graded for performing the tasks you set before me, period.

the most interesting thing above, to me, is epstein’s saying that fewer than 3% of his students care about the material beyond their grade.

(link to scientific american article - )

Comment by patricia on February 20, 2009 at 09:48 PM

I'm not sure it's fair to accuse the students of complaining about their grades due to a "sense of entitlement". Those students have been placed in a system in which grades are the currency. The students didn't invent that system.

An example: my 16-year-old son, whom I've written about here before, has decided to go to school this year, after homeschooling all his life. In the past, grades weren't even on his radar--we certainly didn't use them in our homeschooling. At school, however, he feels great pressure to obtain high grades--not because he wants them, not because his parents are pushing for them, but because he wants to get into a good film school. He's discovered his passion in life, and he wants to develop it.

He's building an impressive film portfolio, because this is what he's motivated to do. Still, he worries that a good portfolio isn't enough to get him into the film schools he's interested in. He's convinced that he needs high grades as well--and he's probably right. If he'd continued homeschooling, we might have circumvented this whole issue, but once he put himself into the school system, he opted into the system of grading. And he got wrangled into the grading mindset almost immediately.

What's ironic to me is that I'm convinced that most filmmaking professors would put my son into that 3% of kids who are passionate about what they study. But to get into that place of study? You'd better get good grades--or find an alternate route in through the back door.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2009 at 10:39 PM

but i think the sense of entitlement described is the attitude that “i worked hard and therefore i should be given a high grade” — feeling entitled to an A whether your work is A-level or not, because you did xyz.

and you are right, the students didn’t invent the system. but they have taken it in and believe they understand how it works what you do to get your grade .. and so this idea of “reteach[ing] students what education is”.

the story of your son, though, seems different. he wants to participate in a system where he must earn high grades in order to get into the university program he desires — he recognizes that, and then he can either go along with it to get what he wants or not. it’s his choice whether he wants to do what is needed to get the grades that become his ticket to film school .. and evidently for some students that includes wheedling teachers into doing it.

it seems to me in that situation, an intelligent person such as your son easily separates the system and what it requires from his own passion for the work. maybe this is especially easy for him (to tell the difference, i mean — not necessarily to achieve his goal) because he comes from outside the system.

it seems to me these writers, though, are talking about how we create these young adults who have come up within the normal school system and believe that if they do xyz, they deserve the high grade (and .. maybe .. the big house, the big-screen tv .. etc.). “i did what i was supposed to, and now you owe me.” that’s where the entitlement comes in.

once you learn the system, you want to see it work the way you understand it to work. if your son watched other students get As for doing things a certain way; he would believe he deserved an A for doing the same things.

you are so right to point out that if you are going to be in college as one of that <3%, you still have to have jumped through all the same hoops to get there in the first place. and maybe other would-be students who would fulfill that “passionate and don’t care about grades” didn’t overlap with “got into this find college”. maybe they are out achieving their success in a different, less typical way.

one thing that occurred to me when i read epstein’s aricle — even when i was passionate about something in college, i’m not sure that would be recognized by my professors. because i couldn’t pursue or express my intense interests in certain material because i was overwhelmed with six classes and a 30-hour-a-week job. i was there to get my degree, not enjoy myself. not even, really, to learn. just to do what was necessary to get my good grades and my diploma. i always understood that. i wouldn’t have jeopardized my grades by indulging in one project to the detriment of my other classes. and if one of my professors had lamented aloud about students not showing passion, i would have scoffed. because i was working an overwhelming work+study schedule in order to make *my* goal, not to please them.

Comment by patricia on February 20, 2009 at 11:17 PM

I think you're right, Lori. Kids who come from outside the system, who start school later, like my son, learn to play along with grading, etc. but they don't necessarily buy into it. The grades are just a way of achieving what they're really passionate about.

My college experience sounds much like yours. I worked hard to get good grades, along with a full load of classes and working too. I did what was expected of me. My son, on the other hand, has already told me that he can't wait to get to college to "study what I want to learn about". He's also said that it will be great not to worry about his grades anymore. I think he *would* be willing to indulge in a passionate project to the detriment of other coursework. So long as he doesn't flunk out, that's fine with me. Let's just hope he doesn't want to go to grad school. ;-)

As a homeschooler he's had the experience of loving his learning, and I think *that's* what he feels entitled to!

Comment by Christina on February 21, 2009 at 12:52 AM

It's true that this article seems to turn the idea of determination/effort = achievement discussed a couple of weeks ago on its head. The article quotes a student as saying:

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade. . . . What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

There is "passion," as mentioned, but often times it comes down to raw talent and ability, which can be difficult to accept. I remember tutoring peers in college and struggling to help them understand concepts or theories that seemed so simple to me. These kids were working hard to understand. They had made an extra effort to spend the time (and money) with a tutor, and still, they couldn't quite wrap their brains around the ideas presented.

Over Christmas, my brother, a philosophy professor, received an email from one of his students in which she questioned her grade of C+ in his class. She cited the exact things the NYT article mentions: she'd worked hard, attended class, done the readings, did everything he'd asked. He wrote her a very respectful response explaining why her performance merited a C+ (and he was being generous): low performances on tests and papers. Furthermore, he explained to her that her writing skills were very poor (he was extremely kind and delicate about this), and if she ever expected to do well in his classes, or in graduate school (in which she had expressed interest), she would need to spend a considerable amount of time honing those skills. He expressed to me privately that he seriously doubted she had the real ability to improve her writing and bring it to the necessary level to ever do well in philosophy.

I think there are a lot of people, not exclusively the younger generation, that believe that enough effort merits "at least a B" or its equivalent. We have the notion, particularly within the great American dream mentality, that with enough determination, you *should* be able to do or get anything you want. Hearkening back to the discussion of a few weeks ago, I want my children to believe this too so that they don't give up when things get hard, so that they try new things, so that they believe in themselves. And yet, many of those kids I tutored simply lacked the natural ability to do outstanding work *in that particular area*. Outstanding work merits a high grade (or a promotion, or recognition, or fill-in-the-blank). Effort is a part of that . . . but not all.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 12:54 AM

what i think is the salient point in the quotes is that we affect how children feel about their work and what they’re doing when we create these systems, like grading. we create the system, and then they respond to it. it’s no good making the system and then trying to back-peddle our way out of it. if we make grades the important thing, then by gosh, they are the important thing.

in some sense i think many parents send their children off to school and simply surrender to the system — it’s what there is, and there’s no getting away from it. i don’t agree with that. and also, i think our attitudes as parents have a very strong effect on our children and how they react to that system. they look to us. we set the tone. we give overt or subtle direction as to how important certain things are. we send a strong message, silent or spoken, about what our values are.

read this old (2002) article today by francesca simon about homework —

“Obviously, we want our children to do well. But the anxiety goes deeper. For parents like me, it's a short step from the missed maths assignment to the park bench drinking meths. Each assignment, each quiz, each test is a tiny step along the way - to where? Good GCSEs. Good A-levels. Good university. Good job. Good life.”

Comment by Christina on February 21, 2009 at 01:00 AM

Oh goodness . . . all that pontificating made me forget my practical question :)

My daughter's project on birds has gotten us interested in bird-watching and we are finally getting down to the nitty-gritty of buying some binoculars. I noticed a pair or two in the field bags posted over on Heywood's Meadow. Do you (or anyone else) have recommendations for binoculars (that a 5-year-old can use)?

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 01:14 AM

christina, a couple of things pop into my head...

dweck is trying to prevent the kind of student who thinks that intelligence is fixed and therefore any situation that reveals anything less than A-level work must be strenuously avoided, even if cheating is necessary — the kind of student that believes everything comes easy if you are smart and if it doesn’t come easy, run.

so, she recommends encouraging children to see that if they work hard they can improve.

so far, so good.

but is this sense of entitlement a natural outgrowth of what she is recommending? if we encourage kids to see their intelligence as something they can strengthen over time, if they make the effort, does that end up convincing them that as long as they make an effort, they’re done?

i think this is an entirely different problem. these students have somehow missed the fact that there is real achievement. i think if we back it up 50 years, high school and college students knew that hard work was required for success, but they also knew there was a difference between average and extraordinary.

i think the problem that led to this sense of entitlement is the self-esteem issue. we have loaded so much praise on our kids that they *all* feel remarkably special. they *all* think they are in the top 10%. i think they are mystified as to how they could possibly rate a C+.

this same “everyone at the top” mentality leads to things like NCLB — *all* our students should be doing well, *all* our schools should be exceeding expectations. forget the bell curve! if we aren’t all achieving, it’s not good enough.

instead of accepting that we’re a big, mixed bag of people with varying interests and abilities, we have gold-plated a single version of success and pointed every single one of our kids at it and said “go!”

christina, i love your story about your brother. what i wonder is, how long will it take that girl to realize that she doesn’t have what it takes for graduate school and an academic career? and who is to blame for her wasted years? at the end, will she feel really crummy about herself? or will she throw the blame elsewhere? either way, she just wasted a lot of time and money pursuing something that she was convinced by the system she could achieve.

Comment by Christina on February 21, 2009 at 01:37 AM

Lori, I totally agree with you about the link between this sense of entitlement and the self-esteem issue. I remember vaguely reading an article in Newsweek a year or so ago about the "gifted predicament." *Everyone* thinks their child is "gifted," when, in fact, the truly "gifted" account for only 1% or so of the population (and comes with its own unique issues). It's a hard balance to find between wanting our kids to feel *remarkable* and being content to let them be above-average, or simply average sometimes. Self worth shouldn't hinge on being remarkable or gifted.

As for my brother's student . . . the whole reason he allowed me to read over the email is because he was worried he was being too harsh (read: too honest) with her, giving her advice that was un-asked-for and would be un-welcome. I told him I thought it was his *responsibility* to let her know where she stood. Who else was going to do it?? Hopefully, she will find self-worth in other areas of her life. I hope that's what my own children learn to do. (But, DANG, I hope they do well in college too :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 02:02 AM

christina, re: binoculars, i think another mom asked the same question; maybe she’ll read this and share anything she learned.

i love our lightweight binoculars, but we bought them a looong time ago -- they’re nikon travelite III’s. they are really light, really adjustable, and easy for kids to use as well as adults. i’m a big fan.

we really need to make an open thread t-shirt with team name THE PONTIFICATORS.

you know, back on the self-esteem thing .. what i really think is that we need to stop focusing on this one idea of a successful life and widen our horizons to fit the vast abilities and interests of our kids. we’re not just wasting their time, we’re wasting their years, and we’re not valuing them, because we’re trying to make everyone the same.

Comment by Dawn on February 21, 2009 at 03:31 AM

Wow! You all are off to a spectacular start this thread!
The thing that pops out for me, that we have really short changed kids with in this system of grades... is the opportunity to know themselves. And that grades are not what they were intended to be upon creation.

Patricia's son and his film making seem to be a great example. He obviously had the time to develop that interest and explore it before deciding to start school and experience the system of grading and all that goes with it. The grades are now a means to an end that he can have some perspective about.

Christina's brother seems to be dealing with someone who was really good at jumping through the hoops before college but is not really good at assessing her own ablities and where she falls in the spectrum. She would have been much better served had someone been honest with her from the start about her strengths and helped her develop in areas that support those strengths.

That being said I totally understand how she could have got to where she is today because I was on the other end of things. I was told not to bother with college. That I was not smart enough. That I was only going to get an MRS. degree... on and on. I did go and had some tough lessons but was smart enough to learn the system and get the grades I needed. I impressed my Biological Basis of Behavior prof enough my Sr. year that he recommneded medical school! I knew I was not med school material because I don't have the personality for it but I aced his class because I thought it was super intresting! He was basing his assessment not on me as a person but on what I did in one class.

So there you have the two ends of the "honest about your *abilities* spectrum"

I think the grade issue has been muddled with lots of stuff that has nothing to do with abilities. We make judgements about an individuals intelligence based their aptitude in one subject area. On top of that I have seen more and more teachers try to take into account all of the environmental factors that effect the student. Each student has their own personal experience with grades that depend on parents view point, teachers they have had, peer response to grades and the system. Grades fail because they are no longer the black and white system I think they were created to be... an impossible creation if any I have seen.

As Lori said "we are a mixed bag of people with varying intrests and ABILITIES".. We should emphasize this over grades and start giving students a more realistic assesment of their strengths according to their aptitudes in areas of intrest. Not the false sense of intelligence or lack of grades have become. I don't blame students for their sense of entitlement. They are learning what we teach!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 03:55 AM

MRS degree! i haven’t heard that in so long!

your story about your prof. judging you based only on that one class, dawn, makes me think of the fable about the elephant and the blind men. one man had the elephant by the tail and said “an elephant is like a rope”. another had it by the leg and said “no, an elephant is like the trunk of a tree”, and so on.

we need 20-year-old kids who know what they like and know who they are, who understand that their capabilities are a beginning and not an end, who can stand up to what other people say about them.

i love what you say about the grade issue and all the things that come into play — it’s so true!

re: realistic assessment .. i think the problem is that we can’t get away from the fact that we are assessing the students. we are giving them too much praise; we are giving them too much criticism. we are giving them an unrealistic expectation of their own abilities; we are giving them too narrow an idea of success. somehow we need to switch things up so the kids are correctly assessing themselves.

Comment by Ali on February 21, 2009 at 10:10 AM

A few years ago my Mum took a GCSE course in Italian (at about 60 yrs old) and was SO STRESSED bout getting a good grade. I took the exam alongside her (as a 20 something) and we both did very well. Now, my Mum is doing the A-level Italian and as part of the course is expected to take the exam - fortunately she's decided to phone in sick ont he day as she's realised that the grade means NOTHING to her. It won't improve her life in any way - she wants to learn Italian not get a qualification and unfortunately this is the only course available at her level. So, sadly even courses for adults can't seem to get out of the grade mentality. It seems that it has completely permeated our society.

Comment by Ali on February 21, 2009 at 10:14 AM

for those of you in the States this was in all the British papers yesterday.

Comment by Amy on February 21, 2009 at 02:47 PM

Oh my goodness, where to begin? The second article hits a nerve with me. A certain school official really pushed me towards Princeton beginning my freshman year of high school, because nobody from our high school had ever gone to Princeton and he wanted to add that college to the school's stats. My sister went to Yale, and, as he told me, he fully expected my grades and test scores to correlate with hers, blah blah blah. Never mind that I didn't WANT to go to Princeton (I wanted to go to NYU but my parents forbid it), and I hated languages (Princeton required 4 yrs of a language in high school)--what I wanted wasn't taken into account at all. Any wonder that by senior year I didn't even want to go to college? I ended up backing my way in to the state university--I took extension courses the first semester and applied to begin mid year. I admittedly have a HUGE chip on my shoulder when it comes to state vs private universities, especially the elite universities. Education, as we know, is what you make of it. I agree that the most successful students (and I was one of them) are simply most successful at playing the game well.

However, I admit I was disappointed that college seemed like more of the same. How many times was a professor asked, "Will this be on the test?" Very few teachers/professors had the guts to say, "Does it matter?" I remember being utterly disgusted in a 300-level genetics class (which I LOVED; it made me wish I'd majored in straight biology instead of wildlife biology) when the professor basically spoon-fed us the test questions during a "study session." At that point we were talking strictly memorizing what he'd identified, with understanding it being optional. And yet there were still so many Ds....

I have two degrees. The first time I was there to get the degree. I liked what I was studying, but I was also working--one, two, sometimes even three jobs. I tried to volunteer on the side to get experience. It was a slog, is what it was. A few years later I went back to school, this time to the state college, to major in English, concentration in creative writing. After a semester I added a minor in art--something that original high school official told me not to take in high school because it would lower my GPA. (I ignored him, by the way, but in my high school there were smart kids, and artistic kids, and even the art teachers separated us that way. I got NO encouragement in art.) So for that second degree I got to spend two years doing things I loved. Yes, I got good grades, but that wasn't the main goal. I was so, so happy for those two years, and I even managed to not have to work for the second year. I think that was the only time in my life that I was completely immersed in following a passion and joy. Since I already had a degree, I didn't have to take any electives; I spent all my time in either English or art classes, in studios and the darkroom, writing and reading, painting and drawing. It was heaven.

So I've done it both ways. I won't lie: the grades were a concern both times, because I was so entrenched in that way of thinking. But I was fully prepared to fall on my face in art--it was something I liked but that I'd been told I had no aptitude for. My first art professor in college let me know that assessment was wrong and encouraged me to at least minor in art. It did not come easy to me. I probably put in twice the amount of time, at least, as the students who had a natural ability at drawing, for instance. But that's the only time I've experienced that "zone" phenomenon. I had no concept of time. I just loved what I was doing. And yes, the grades followed, but they weren't the main goal.

That's the kind of experience I want for my kids, but I don't want them to be in their early 20s before they get there, like I was. It's a tricky balance, though, and I don't know that I'm doing it right.

Comment by Dawn on February 21, 2009 at 03:48 PM

Yes Lori, Wouldn't it be great if we were somehow able to give kids the ability to assess themselves! That would sure take a lot of trust! Huge shift in the mind set out there!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 04:07 PM

ali, thank you for sharing that article!

a great quote: “Children's lives are being impoverished by the government's insistence that schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of creative teaching, the biggest review of the primary school curriculum in 40 years finds today. … ‘Our argument is that their education, and to some degree their lives, are impoverished if they have received an education that is so fundamentally deficient.’”

i wish i heard politicians and educators in the u.s. making statements like these.

the article, perfectly tying in to the quotes above, goes on to talk about giving teachers more “freedom and flexibility” and “reopen[ing] the debate about the purposes of primary education”.

love the story about your mom; thanks so much for sharing that. and it is funny that even as an adult, the grades loom over you like a black cloud, even when you are choosing the course and deeply interested in learning the material!

amy, thank you so much for sharing your story!

what i have been thinking about during this open thread is how grades in school correlate to acceptance/approval from society as an adult — how easily we move from striving to get good grades in school to striving to succeed in adult life, when “success” is something defined by other people. i wonder how much that derails us from our true path.

it seems if you get children acclimated to this kind of work-for-a-reward system, you have them perfectly trained for slotting into their place in society — continuing to work hard for the prize.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 04:51 PM

we did self-assessments at my school, dawn. we devised a progress report (alternative to a traditional report card) that included the student’s self-assessment and their own goals. in my experience children were usually very accurate in their self-assessments, and they didn’t pull any punches in critiquing their own performance!

we also structured projects so that students (in K through 4th) would document their plans, reflect on their progress, and then do a self-assessment at the end.

part and parcel of self-assessments is getting the child to articulate his own goals for himself and his work — it is all about shifting perspective so the child understands he owns the work, it is for him, and any improvements he makes will benefit *him* in achieving his own goals.

this doesn’t mean you have to completely throw out your expectations for your students (or your homeschooled children), either. but it pulls the children into the process and helps them realize that it’s really all about them and they can play a bigger role in their own education.

Comment by melanie on February 21, 2009 at 05:03 PM

A quick commment.. sorry I don't have time to read all the insightful comments above. (crazy busy week).

Thank you again for another very thought provoking series of quotes. I feel like i am learning all over again how to learn. I want to go back to university myself now!!

I love the line about kids feeling that they are entitled to an A if they work hard, and how we need to show them that THEY are the ones who MAKE an A, they don't GET an A. Definately something to think about. I love this common thread of motivating kids. Now how it works out in my daily grade 3 and K students, I'm not quite sure, but I'm ready to learn slowly with them.

Comment by barbara on February 21, 2009 at 08:41 PM

That first article (and the second one) reminded me of a great little Alan Watts animated short by Trey Parker and Matt Stone:
It basically addresses the philosophy of living, which is what education is supposed to be all about, right? The video sums up my thoughts better than I could articulate (I am much more of an audio/ visual person, not much of a writer--sorry!)
Definitely worth a watch. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 09:09 PM

barbara, i love that piece, and it does fit what we’re talking about perfectly. thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 09:39 PM

"Our key thought this morning was about bravery in the curriculum, in trusting students and in taking risks.

‘I feel there is a need for schools like this in a changing world where there are issues about global warming and resources, about why the banking world has collapsed and where overt competition is encouraged.

‘We advocate independence, creativity, relationships and spontaneity, which might be more effective in the long term for all of us.’”

-- Challenge to One-Size Education, BBC

Comment by Kerry on February 21, 2009 at 10:47 PM

Great conversation! I think this problem has been going on for a long time - I know it was there when I was in high school and college. I consider myself lucky that I somehow learned early to separate real learning from the "other" kind, the kind on standardized and multiple choice tests. I learned pretty early to "play the game". A lot of the kids I went ot high school with felt completely entitled to having their college education fully paid for by their parents. My parents couldn't do it, and I never felt that I was entitled to that. So I played the game, studied the SAT's, and got a high score which enabled me to be eligible for scholarship money. I knew that that test was not a testimony to my actual intelligence - it was just a tool I needed to play the system. I did this again with the GRE for grad school. Like Amy, though, I had just as many disappointing experiences with professors who seemed bored with their own subject matter, and were content to spoon feed students and tell them exactly what would be on the tests.
I don't think kids should get A's or even B's if they don't put any original thought into their work. Spitting back what you've read or been told isn't learning - making the knowledge meaningful, reflecting on it, using it - that is learning.
You guys make my day with these threads!

Comment by Amy on February 21, 2009 at 10:53 PM

I waited all morning for Benen to nap so I could participate! Allow me to say that I value the comments on open thread so much - the best dialogue occurs here, I feel weekly that I'm challenged to consider my own assumptions in ways I know I otherwise wouldn't - and the comments are immensely helpful to me in evolving my own value system. OK, that said: like so many other people commenting, I've "worked the system" many ways throughout my life- depending on my needs at the time - and one thing I wanted to point out for me was that as well-trained as I was to excel at the "game", there really were areas in which I just was not too talented and my family and social culture growing up never acknowledged this! This is a great crime of labeling kids as gifted, etc to my mind.
I was really compelled by Christina's description of her brother's counsel to his student. I had a comparable experience in undergrad that was shattering at the time; I know what that professor said to me was thoughtful, true, and has ultimately helped me understand my impact and place in the world.
I did spin wheels, waste resources, and beat myself up considerably before I finally *got* that I couldn't excel at everything academically and accepted it as a gift rather than a shortcoming- and without discouraging Benen from following his inquiry where it takes him, I consider it one of my parenting responsibilities to help him be ok with cutting his losses and looking at his weaker parts and being fine with them. I'm curious to hear how other parents work with their kids' less-than-glowing parts to this end...
I know that this space has addressed working with failure in the past. To that end, what about just working with the lackluster?

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 22, 2009 at 01:54 AM

kerry, thank you! your school experience sounds like mine. and i’m not saying learning how to play that game wasn’t valuable in and of itself .. but maybe not worth the tuition cost. ;^)

amy, thank you re: the open thread!

you know, in terms of helping children work with their less-than-glowing parts .. i wonder if *part* of what we can do is just acknowledge truth when our children speak it. do you know what i mean? when they say, “i’m not that good at baseball...”, do we immediately say “no! you’re wonderful! you’re the best on the team!”? i’m not saying we should beat up on our kids or allow them to beat up on themselves, but maybe part of our responsibility as parents is to help them see their true gifts and *be okay* with them not excelling at everything.

i think they look to us. and if we’re okay with them being great at some things, not-great at others, then they’ll be okay with it. if they see see us do the best we can, then hopefully they’ll be inspired to do the same. that’s my take on it.

lol about working with the lackluster. it’s something we all have to do! :^)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on February 22, 2009 at 03:27 AM

Finally chiming in here. I was thinking about the "less than stellar" issue. In our house, when someone says "I'm not good at xxx" I ask them whether they're not good at it because they haven't had enough experience at it or if they are truly struggling with it. Often it goes back to the perfectionist tendencies of wanting to be good at it *right now* and not wanting to put in effort to improve. Other times, it just really doesn't work for them. One of the hardest things I've dealt with as a parent is having a child who doesn't love to read and isn't an accomplished reader (and not for a lack of effort). Since reading is a basic tool for all other learning, we can't just say that he's not good at it. We have to continually work at improvement until he uses reading easily as a tool, even if he doesn't ever read for pleasure. I'll have to be okay with that.

Other than the reading, I think we do accept their strengths and their weaknesses and try to recognize that they like to do the things they do well and they don't like to do things that are a struggle. I read interest as an indicator of aptitude, and I don't expect them to do it all.

But, damn, I wish they would all love to read. When something gives me so much pleasure, I want them to love it too. Sigh.

Oh, and back to the work hard = A issue. I've been pleasantly surprised to see my eldest not expect that her work equals a high grade without mastery of the subject. I credit her years rowing crew for that. She worked her ass off and was never a great rower. She switched to coxing and excelled - because she was good at it and could develop her talent. No amount of work was going to land her at regionals in crew. If we can accept that in sports, why can't we accept in in academics? We can't all be great at all subjects.

Comment by Laura on February 22, 2009 at 05:36 PM

"I wish they would all love to read. When something gives me so much pleasure, I want them to love it too. Sigh."

Sarah Jackson - I completely understand! I love to read, it's a big part of my life, and as a reading teacher I encountered many children who struggled with reading and/or did not enjoy reading. Have you seen this post by children's book author Maxwell Eaton? It has some good (and silly) tips for instilling a love of reading, at the least it is amusing:

I think it's a two way street: when a child is struggling with reading, it is hard to enjoy! on the other hand, when a child only sees the work involved with reading, the motivation to learn can be hard to find. Best of luck!

Comment by Maritza on February 22, 2009 at 07:09 PM

Hi, I've never commented here before, but this is a wonderful place! The thoughts on education and learning are exciting, thanks for prompting this discussion.

I have to say, in some ways, I did play the system well. I graduated HS at 16 and got my BFA just after I turned 20. My goal: to graduate from art school. I got high grades. Then what? Hmm. :) Anyway, in high school I knew I preferred to go to art school & knew I could circumvent many of the hoops that others would have to jump through for university if I chose the alternate route. Now that I know more about myself, I totally couldn't have run that kind of race anyway (huge campus, large lectures, juggling subjects.) I would have fallen on my face.

However, it's still hard for me to wrap my mind around being in a class and receiving a C and being OK with that. Even when I knew I did my best. Certainly I'd want to know "Why," and certainly I'd want a truthful & specific answer to it, not just to be told that meeting requirements = C, without being told what was missing in me or my work. (Kudos to the brother professor who did thoughtful explaining.) I remember going to a professor's assistant at art school to ask why I got a B when surely my work had been thorough (in my mind.) I (mostly) wasn't saying I deserved an A, but I wanted a legitimate reason for receiving less than I expected. (What's wrong with expecting an A?) Thankfully, I was told, and it was informative. When is getting a C ok? It's not ok when it keeps one from reaching goals (like that film school the boy wants to get into) and it's not ok when it changes from professor to professor (one who teaches to the test, the other who is interested in true excellence) and it's not ok when someone has dreams and painfully discovers they are on the wrong path... according to that teacher. (Who's to say?) I was only ok with a C when I knew I didn't care or didn't try. It seemed well deserved in those cases.

As far as our children's less than glowing parts- I am thinking it starts with how we see our own. I am a firm believer in owning what one is GREAT at and embracing truth about what one does badly. I think laughter at both is great. There are so many kinds of talents and certain talents are weighed heavier in our society than others (for example- loving deeply & compassionately can't be quantified. Being able to make people laugh... awesome gift) and I think when a child can own a talent, it's huge. At least for me, I am more able to laugh at my huge weaknesses when I can point to something else and say- but That?!? I totally rock at *That*! Works for me... most of the time. :)

Comment by Christina on February 22, 2009 at 09:17 PM

I loved that Alan Watts short Barbara posted the link to. How true. I think that's why I have such an aversion to the idea of AP and IB tests that "get you out" of taking classes in college. Why are we trying so hard to "get out" of things? Why would anyone want to rush through school? So that they can rush through college and then, what? Start life? Life started way back there.

I also appreciate Amy bringing up the topic of dealing with the lackluster in our own children. I want my children to be good at EVERYTHING, but, of course, I'm not. And their strengths are not always mine.

Lori, I also love the idea of self-assessment with children. This simply hadn't occurred to me yet. Being new to homeschooling, I wondered how to assess my daughter mid-year. I had this nagging feeling that, while *I* knew exactly how she was doing, I should make a written record of it. So I wrote up a detailed "progress report" of her performance, strengths, weaknesses, etc. I'd like to get her involved in the next one. I need to get more information and insight on this!

Comment by jen on February 22, 2009 at 09:22 PM

I didn't have a chance to respond to this Friday, and so much has been said since I first read the post. I appreciate the discussion on these open threads so much!

I also sort of wondered, as I read, about some of the other ways that students' K-12 education is failing them. I would say that a lot of people walking around with high school diplomas don't know how to correctly use a semi-colon or figure percentages in their heads or understand metric measurement. Even worse, many people don't know that they don't know, so they go on the assumption (like Christina's brother's student) that if they work really hard they should get the grade. I think so often students are told that they are good at something that they really aren't; no teacher or parent wants to discourage a child!

I think it's terribly disappointing to see young(er) people who have great hopes and dreams, yet they weren't given the right tools to get to those hopes and dreams. They weren't given the truth or the skills that they need to improve.

I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that our children need to understand that they aren't great at everything. They know that about others; they are able to tell us that their friends are good and x and not so great at y...but do they have the ability to apply that to themselves? And do they have the ability to work at what doesn't come naturally? I know as an adult, I feel such a great sense of victory when I work really hard at something and make progress (even if my progress is running a 5k while my neighbor easily runs a marathon). I want to communicate that to my children!

In addition, as an adult, we have the ability to pick and choose our way in life. We can leave behind our weak areas and choose to focus our efforts where we aren't we giving our children a gift, if we speak to them honestly about their strengths and weaknesses, helping them understand that they are valued not just for their strengths but as a whole?

So I don't know if I'm actually adding anything to the discussion, but I just had to think "out loud" for a bit!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 23, 2009 at 03:43 AM

sarah, the one thing i meant to come back & say about your comment was that i think there is a difference between 6yo kids and 13yo kids who are talking about what they’re not good at — kwim? i’ve talked here a lot about how i try to circumvent my sons’ perfectionist tendencies (inherited from - ahem - me) by pointing out how rewarding it can be to succeed at something that doesn’t come easily. i really want them to understand that. but at the same time, i don’t want to pretend that they’re awesome at something that we both know they have to work hard at.

laura, i posted that link here on the ccb! :^)

maritza, thank you! :^)

interesting points about the grades -- your pov is making me think that students who go in to complain about grades are, perhaps, saying, “hey, i know it’s just a game, and i did my part, now hand over my A.”

i agree with you completely about owning the *good* as well as the bad -- sometimes we struggle with accepting what we’re great at as much as we struggle with accepting what we aren’t great at! owning your talent is a huge first step toward a happy life!

christina, as part of our assessment, we asked the children a series of questions .. it was really quite illuminating .. i need to look it up and share it here, i think you would get something out of it. at least it might be a springboard for people forming their own ideas about doing self-assessments.

jen, thank you! :^) you know, one of the main ways we have always thought that h.s. education lets kids down is in financial knowledge .. and that has really been in the front of our minds this year, with the economy mess! what is the point of preparing kids to be part of the “workforce” if they don’t understand credit, borrowing, and saving?

re: kids having big dreams .. i have to keep puzzling over this. i agree with everything you say. i’m just not sure how to explain my feelings about how i want to support my kids to follow their dreams, yet i feel it’s really important to be honest about abilities (our own and theirs) -- not cutting them down or saying “you can’t realistically do that’ -- not that at all! -- just being frank about what doesn’t come easily and what is going to need a lot of effort. there’s no quick and easy way to explain this, but i do feel like we are honest with our kids about our “less than stellar” qualities and what we struggle with, and at the same time we set high goals for ourselves and share that, too. mm.

i agree with you so much about how as adults we get to choose! we can hire an accountant if we don’t like math, etc. -- we can really choose to spend the majority of our time on what we’re good at! i have said here, often, that i think it is unfortunate that we seem to want our kids to be good at everything — that we aren’t satisfied with them being good only at some things. i wonder what this does to our ability to strengthen our natural talents.

i thought your out-loud thinking was a great contribution! ;^)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on February 23, 2009 at 04:12 AM

Lori - I agree, and I've definitely handled that feeling differently depending on the age (and personality) of the child. However, I have noticed in my children that if I don't accept their perfectionist tendencies (also inherited from me) when they're 6 and challenge them to work at things, then they're less likely to be that way when they're older. They know that they have strengths and weaknesses and that they need to work harder in the weak areas if they expect to perform to their own expectations.

I think the most frustrating "I'm not good at it" moment was when Lindsay decided that since everyone else was getting a tutor for the SAT, that clearly she needed one too since she wasn't good at test taking. Ahem. She had always excelled at testing (and I'm not a fan of tests, but they were part of her everyday life) until she saw everyone else's parents buying tutoring. Then all of a sudden she was helpless and scored well below where she should have, based on previous test scores. I still think she did it to show us that she wasn't that smart and needed a tutor like the other kids, rather than using the tools we did provide. Therefore she's at the state school she didn't want to attend instead of the school she had always wanted. Talk about fear of success. She was willing to accept being mediocre rather than work hard on her own to achieve her goal, so that she had her SAT scores to blame when she didn't get in. And yes, I'm still ticked about it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 23, 2009 at 04:23 AM

oh, absolutely -- and that’s something i’ve written about here a lot. (all those posts about mistakes are good.)

it’s much easier to instill these things in children when they are younger.

what happened with linds and the SAT sounds exactly like that perfectionist self-sabotage that i know so well! but i’m sure she learned a *lot* from that experience.

Comment by jen on February 23, 2009 at 05:19 AM

Oh, yes, please - I'd love to see some of the self-assessment stuff that you have/use! Yay! You weren't talking to me, per se, yet I was really excited to see you offer to share it.

Re: kids having big dreams. It's all still theory for me, since my oldest is the ripe old age of seven...and a half! I agree that I don't know the answers and that there isn't a quick, easy answer...I just know that I think we are doing kids a great disservice when we tell them they are great at everything. The rest I guess I'll have to make up as I go along - ha!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 23, 2009 at 03:12 PM

jen, i will! it always helps to have something to start from. much easier to edit something than start from scratch!

so true — there is no quick and easy answer. but, as we make it up as we go along, it is nice to talk with each other and share ideas! ;^)

Comment by Cordelia on February 24, 2009 at 02:30 PM

Thanks Lori, for another thought provoking open thread. all weekend (and a bit)) I sort of tossed all of this around in my head. We had some interesting discussions here.

The belief that effort, rather than "talent" is the key to exceptional accomplishment and so should be rewarded and recognized is at odds (in and educational setting-whether home, school, workshop, whatever) with the notion that it is raw accomplishment that deserves recognition. I agree that we choose how to pitch it to our kids depending on their age/needs, etc. Ultimately, they will learn that the world rewards in a somewhat arbitrary way neither the most accomplished nor the hardest-working, but often the most closely related to the boss, the tallest, the one who got there first, the one who looks most like the head of the selection committee, the one who happened to write a song that dovetailed with some national crisis. For now, we tell them the world is the way we wish it would be.

In our case, we want him to believe that he can be much better at most things, that the only important question is not "is it good?" but "am i happy twith it? Do I want to keep on going?" And so we are careful not to judge our own, and other folks' efforts too harshly around our kid. There is not much bad art/music in our house, but we do talk about what we like, whether the artist was probably pleased with it, why, etc. It is just too eash for my son to decide that his art has nothing in common with the "good" art,or is not "as good" and, therefore not worth making. (We have different rules for writing, because we just can't help reading "atrocious" writing to each other, and believe that there is value in pointing out a beautiful phrase..and , I suppose, because we are more confident about our words. Also, we do love to talk about food being bad, but we are all good cooks.)

So it is all just the business of shnookering the kids, then? Convincing them that they can get better at things, or at least "better enough" to merit ongoing effort? All of this while not misleading them...

I once had a housemate from a very tiny town in Kansas, pop. like 900. Not a suburb, a true tiny town. Funny thing is folks from her town kept coming to stay with us to see one of the locals who was in a broadway show, or in some big NYC music thing, she was some kind of genius something, it was like this teeny town of exceptional people. I think there is something to that big fish/small pond confidence. Every one of them grew up being the smart one, the best musician, the best singer, dancer, etc., and that confidence stayed with them. See, I just don't believe they got an exceptional dose of skill or hard work in that town. I think they just picked up a healthy sense of "entitlement."

Although it is sort of intuitively obvious that some folks are just better at stuff and of course they succeed, it is also true that folks who are not especially gifted seem to succeed, not apparently because of exceptional effort,because of nerve, determination, traits sometimes, but not always, paired with talent and effort

And so, I am troubled when people judge determined, hard working people they meet as adults or older kids and decide that they just lack some raw ability necessary for academic success. Several of your readers shared their own unlikely success stories, and I believe that students who have managed to rise to high levels in spite of still-apparent deficits are not a blight but a gift. I think the kind of student who is willing to work really hard at course content is usually willing to work equally hard to address skills deficits if this is presented as a need they have rather than a barrier to entry. The problem is that our system often faills to identify these needs until the dreaded final exam. Sure, someone should have done this earlier, but why shouldn't the college educator, (surely the most highly paid and well prepared educator who has seen the student) have a go at it? The trick is to find them while they can still make a difference in their own lives.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 25, 2009 at 03:53 PM

cordelia, so funny, we were talking about this yesterday here at my house — the same thing, that the “game” continues in the real world where neither the best quality work nor the hardest effort may be rewarded.

we focus on competing with ourselves rather than others — and learning about having a personal relationship with work. giving them a strong say in their own education, a chance to pursue their own interests seriously.

re: shnookering the kids .. this is why i think we need to acknowledge the game but emphasize the personal. other people will assess your work, yes. but you should assess your own work. other people will tell you what you should do and how you should do it, yes. but you should form your own opinions about what you should do, and how, and why.

re: big fish/small pond .. i grew up in a tiny rural town, and this is what i think about that phenomenon — it feeds in to everything i go on about, re: giving children the chance to *practice* being in charge, explore their own interests, work seriously at something, etc. when you are in a small town, there aren’t a whole lot of other people competing against you in your chosen pursuits .. kwim? you have more of a chance to do the work and take it seriously and have other people recognize it. so your caring and your intense interest and your hard work added to whatever talent you possess become something real and satisfying. and maybe you then become someone who can make it in the big town .. and maybe you are someone who can only be a star in the tiny town. but either way, you get to be what you want to be. it’s less about other people’s expectations and more about your pursuit of what you care deeply about. i think through homeschooling we can give our children these same small-pond opportunities — we can make a space for them to take themselves and their work seriously. whether that translates into a huge career or a lifelong hobby, the important thing is that it translates into pleasure, fulfillment, connection.

re: your last paragraph, i understand what you are saying, but here is the thing — there is no way that professor can back it up and bring that student up to where she needs to be to pursue her Ph.D. in philosophy. and he sees that she doesn’t have what she needs and can’t make it. how did she get there? believing that she had exactly what it takes? all along the way, people gave her false feedback about her abilities and her efforts. this, to me, is more fallout from the “everyone deserves solid-gold self-esteem” trend. at some earlier points in her student career, she needed to be told where she was falling short, where her work *wasn’t* A-level but C-level instead. then she could have made the choice to either accept that and choose another path or devote herself to getting what she wanted by tremendous hard work. it’s not saying to a determined, hard-working student “you lack the raw ability necessary for academic success.” it’s saying, “your writing is poor, and this is what is poor about it, and this is good writing, and you have a lot of hard work to do.” and etc. but somewhere along the line, we said it wasn’t okay for teachers to tell our children hard truths.

talent is certainly not a guarantee for achievement. hard work isn’t either. both are required in some measure, but certainly, some make do with less talent and more hard work and some with the opposite. this we know. now, the question is — how to help our own children find their happy life, their fulfilling work, to acknowledge the game of grades and outward recognition without losing their connection to what really matters to them.

Comment by Lynn on February 27, 2009 at 01:25 PM

Hello Lori!
you ok? just checking in :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 27, 2009 at 03:24 PM

hi lynn :^)

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