Craig Axford | Canada
School is supposed to be about learning. Tests to determine whether we’ve learned how to do something may be unavoidable, especially when it comes to the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. But even in those cases, grades should be part of a broader context that includes a degree of playfulness and creativity.
As a student myself, it’s impossible not to sound at least a little self-serving when it comes to the topic of grades, exams, and all the other various methods employed to evaluate us. Believe me, I understand society has an interest in making sure the desired information has been retained and that we are capable of using it appropriately. The certificate we frame to hang on our office wall needs to signal much more than merely the fact that we were able to scrape together enough money to pay our tuition.
But as great as our need to know that the professionals we encounter have at some idea what they’re talking about is, it’s at least as important that the fields they work in be populated with a few rebels who are willing to challenge prevailing opinions now and then. This doesn’t mean adopting skepticism for skepticism’s sake or rejecting the value of a good education. Rather, it calls for a strategic skepticism that rejects the orthodoxy that existing knowledge is sufficient.
We want our heretics to possess an understanding of conceptual weak spots and have the ability to look at old problems from new perspectives. Fostering the kind of playfulness, irreverence, and creativity this demands can be difficult in a traditional school setting. However, while it may be unrealistic to expect schools to abandon grades as an evaluation tool it’s not unrealistic to encourage students (and the rest of us) to stop seeing their grade point average as an adequate measure of their intelligence and potential future productivity.
Developing a firm understanding of a subject doesn’t always translate into an easy A. Arguably, for those truly willing to explore the philosophical and scientific thickets that lie at the heart of virtually every field it never does. Though Einstein developed the theory of relativity only after initially gaining an understanding of Newtonian physics, he did not endear himself to all his professors in the process. As his knowledge of physics grew, so did his understanding of the limits of the Newtonian worldview. His willingness to challenge settled thinking and ask difficult questions others could not answer made him a very difficult student indeed.
Likewise, Darwin was only able to formulate the theory of evolution by first becoming well informed about contemporary thinking about biology and geology. But first, he was a terrible medical student and a rather mediocre would-be divinity student with a tendency to take unrelated classes and develop hobbies like beetle collecting simply because he found them interesting. Had Darwin attended university now instead of in the 1820s, he could very easily have found himself enrolled for years, piling up student debt as he struggled to select a major.
The mission of any school should be to teach; the goal of any student should be to learn. But learning is a complex activity that involves the integration of new information that must be filtered through each student’s unique life experiences and personality. It is rarely if ever as linear a process as we tend to think it is. Given this reality, the correlation between “good students” and good grades is frequently as complicated at the ‘A’ end of the spectrum as it can be nearer the ‘F’ end.
A few years ago I took an osteology course to meet a requirement for my anthropology degree. It was the final year of an undergraduate program that included two degrees and that, for a variety of reasons, I was very much looking forward to finishing.
Cultural, not physical anthropology had been my focus. Bones were interesting but I didn’t see myself participating in any archaeological digs in the future. More problematic, however, was the expectation that students be able to very quickly identify bone fragments by the end of the course. Lab tests involved spending about 30 minutes with roughly 30 often very small pieces of teeth or bone, moving systematically from one to the other while the instructor timed us. I usually found myself spending the first 15 seconds at the next sample writing down my answer for the last one.
Given such identification probably involved hours of examination and discussion in the field, I seriously questioned the purpose of providing so little time with samples in the lab. It didn’t help that high-pressure tests requiring me to make very quick decisions also produce what I can only describe as mild panic attacks.
I barely passed the course, and then thanks only to an extra credit paper I wrote on the topic of rickets. But that paper enabled me to apply my cultural anthropology learning to osteology. To this day I still remember the results of much of my research for that extra credit assignment. In addition, due to the countless hours spent watching Youtube videos about the human skeleton and engaging with interactive anatomy programs, to say nothing of the time spent staring at images of Homo habilis and modern human bone fragments trying to identify the subtle differences between them, I can honestly say that my final grade did not reflect the amount of learning that took place that semester.
In his December 8th opinion piece in the New York Times, the organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues it is among past students with grade point averages of 2.0–3.0 that we often find the best minds, not 4.0 or 1.0 and under. Grant writes:
Academic grades rarely assess qualities like creativity, leadership and teamwork skills, or social, emotional and political intelligence. Yes, straight-A students master cramming information and regurgitating it on exams. But career success is rarely about finding the right solution to a problem — it’s more about finding the right problem to solve.
In a classic 1962 study, a team of psychologists tracked down America’s most creative architects and compared them with their technically skilled but less original peers. One of the factors that distinguished the creative architects was a record of spiky grades. “In college our creative architects earned about a B average,” Donald MacKinnon wrote. “In work and courses which caught their interest they could turn in an A performance, but in courses that failed to strike their imagination, they were quite willing to do no work at all.” They paid attention to their curiosity and prioritized activities that they found intrinsically motivating — which ultimately served them well in their careers.
Anyone who has ever had to bring home a mediocre report card, let alone a downright disappointing one, has likely reminded their parents that Einstein had a reputation as a poor student or that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both university dropouts. Indeed, Grant provides his own list in his NY Times op-ed, pointing out that JK Rowling was a C student and Martin Luther King only ever received a single A.
Our parents were probably right to keep pressuring us to bring our GPA up. Though a great many great minds have been mediocre students, it doesn’t follow that mediocrity is necessarily an indicator of a mind functioning at the height of its potential. Usually, it’s just a sign of mediocrity.
Nonetheless, we need to be aware of what our grades are actually measuring, and in too many cases it is an ability to recite information we’ve heard or read rather than apply knowledge in new ways no one has previously thought of before. It’s one thing to know the dates marking great events in history or ace every spelling test, but it’s those able to apply the lessons of history to contemporary social problems or write great novels that really keep our culture marching forward.
If your goal is to graduate without a blemish on your transcript, you end up taking easier classes and staying within your comfort zone. If you’re willing to tolerate the occasional B, you can learn to program in Python while struggling to decipher “Finnegans Wake.” You gain experience coping with failures and setbacks, which builds resilience. ~ Adam Grant
Rule number five among the Dalai Lama’s 18 Rules for Living is “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” Finding ways to produce the same or better outcomes more efficiently without causing yourself or others harm means first learning the path conventionally followed by others to get there.
But a willingness to apply the information that comes our way in the classroom — or anywhere else — in creative ways is necessarily going to be risky, even when we carry out our experiments “properly”. First of all, we may find out we were wrong. But as social creatures, perhaps what’s most threatening to us is our innate fear of rejection.
Others often don’t appreciate the fact that we’re thinking outside the box, even when we’re proven right in the end. In a classroom setting, our teachers may not approve. At work, it may mean getting called into the boss’ office for a lecture on following company procedures to the letter.
Unfortunately, both mistakes and rejection are inherent risks of the learning process. While we need to be mindful of the lines we choose to color outside of, we still need to be willing to wander beyond them now and then. The lessons that really stick with us, whether from the classroom or elsewhere, are the ones that involved the most growth. If we’re honest, those experiences almost never include a perfect grade.
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