Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Sixth Grader Just Made High Honors Again!
Does It Really Matter?

My High Honor Roll Student

I am forever dwelling on learning environments, or more specifically environments where people learn best. I guess that makes sense given my chosen career path. However, lately these thoughts have been a bit more overwhelming due to the fact that the my professional life has intersected with my personal life.

I found out yesterday that my sixth grader made high honor roll for the second time in his brief middle school career. While I am extremely proud of his focus, I still wonder if what he is learning is really significant and whether or not he is being engaged in school daily and if higher-level critical thinking skills are being fostered. He is very grade-conscious and checks his on-line portal each night to see if he has dropped below 90 in any course. But is he enjoying learning about new things or is he involved in too much rote memorization of meaningless, low-level facts?

Parents Worry About The Wrong Things

I think too many of us (parents) worry about grades without spending time thinking about what are kids are being graded on. For instance, my son recently had a quiz in computer class where he had to memorize terms like floppy disk and CPU. While he aced the quiz, I am pretty sure this exercise did not foster any growth in his ability to use a computer or instill him with a passion to do more in this area.

While it is nice to brag to friends and family about a child's "high honor roll status," do you ever worry that these grades alone may not be preparing your child for some of the higher-level tasks that are going to come their way somewhere down the line? Equally important, do you worry that the school your child is in might not be instilling a love of learning and creating a foundation that will make your child a lifelong learner. Have you ever asked for an explanation of why something is being taught or why so much rote memorization is still being demanded?

Research Shows Us Our Focus Needs An Adjustment

The research of Carol Dweck and others proves that these concerns are quite valid. Dan Pink's new book Drive is also a reminder about "The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us." In fact Pink cites some of Dweck's findings on the subject of learning. Here are a couple excerpts that we all need to consider:

"Dweck found that giving children a performance goal (say getting a high mark on a test) was effective for relatively straight forward problems but often inhibited the child's ability to apply the concepts to new situations...Student with learning goals score significantly higher...With a learning goal, students don't have to feel that they're already good at something in order to hang in and keep trying. After all their goal is to learn, not to prove they're smart."

Final Questions

In the end, a report card with all A's, copies of the high honor roll list with your name on it, a high school diploma are certainly nice to have. But if you have all of this without a passion to go out and immerse yourself in learning about something that interests you what do you really have? Will these past records of learning in an environment focused on performance goals help our children get where they want to go and become what they want to become? Just wondering?


  1. I am a middle school teacher, with a child who is a high school sophomore, who just interviewed a high school senior for college through an alumni admissions program. In all three cases, I see motivation to learn being the most important factor in how sophisticated these kids can think. The more they do it for the grades, the less sophisticated their thinking. Alfie Kohn's writings, based in the extensive research he has read, would confirm that. If external motivators to learn (such as grades) actually turn off kids and inhibit the development of internally motivated learners, shouldn't we remove external motivators? In fact, in my middle school, we have never had honor roll, and we just eliminated letter grades. My seventh grade class is unbelievably excited about what they are learning, asking incredible questions, finding answers. With this in mind, our parents are supportive of what we are doing. It takes courage and careful planning to implement, but is more than worth the time and effort.

  2. What a great post that makes me think ... I love the fact that my children do well in school but I can't help but wonder if what they are learning will be applied to move them forward onto college and ultimately a good job. Thank you for bringing this topic to the front of the class.

  3. Finally someone in this system has hit the nail on the head. It is unfortunate that the Massachusetts cirriculum is focused on teaching to the test instead of trying to instill a love of learning and the ability to apply what students learn to new situations. Perhaps there will soon be a change in the way the leaders think and learn and only then will change happen.

  4. I'm a Pine Glen parent, so my kids are a long way from high school, but I am thrilled to read your thoughts on learning. It's refreshing to hear from a principal who is not overly focused on test scores, and truly understands what kids really need to learn in schools. Thanks for the great post.

  5. Pat,
    Your comments are right on. Unfortunately, the system is such that it rewards grades, not necessarily learning. We know how arbitrary grades are and that an "A" in one class may not be an "A" in another class. It's time we moved away from the tired practice of rewarding students for production (which most grades do) and began to focus on growth and learning.

    Congrats to your son. Knowing you and your focus on meaningful learning, I'm sure he is growing and learning. But, many students, including myself when I was student, figure out what had to be done to get a good grade. They know how to play the game and beat the system. Further, they know that many times learning is secondary to grades.

  6. I just found your blog through your guest post on Free Technology for Teachers. I wish I could get the parents of my sixth grade students to embrace your thoughts and concerns. I hope if I teach anything it is a love of learning. Unfortunately, that is a difficult trait to measure.

  7. Patrick - absolutely love this post! You have further fueled my passion around this. Last year, our school (K-6) stopped giving out honour roll. We are trying to move away from focusing on grades and we felt that honour roll did not align with our philosophy. We used to give honour roll to grade 4's and we actually had to teach them what it was! Although in our school we MUST give grades, we do NOT have to have honour roll so it was something we could do. I am so happy you have written this post as a parent as I think it is much more powerful coming from both an admin and a parent.

    Thanks for all you are teaching me through Connected Principals - it is posts like these that make me so proud to be aligned with an educator like you that places focus on learning rather than achievement.