Teach your kids that learning should always trump grades

I am increasingly concerned about the emphasis being placed on letter grades, both by parents and teenagers. I can’t tell you how many times a week a student asks “Does this count?” when I introduce an activity or a parent emails to ask about grades. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the weight that grades carry when it comes to college admissions and scholarships. But the idealist in me continues to wish that everyone could re-train their thinking by thinking about their thinking.

One day, a student approached me with the following question: “Dr. D, can you help me with my grade?” I waited for an explanation, and when he stopped there, I prodded, “Do you mean can I help you to improve your grade? Sure, I can certainly do that. What do you need help with?” He fumbled around for a reply and then went on to say that he couldn’t have a D or F in my class, so he needed help. I asked him if he had read the latest assigned novel, because his test grade had been quite poor. He replied that he had read some of it. I asked him what he expected to have in a class in which he didn’t read the required novels. He just stared at me, and then returned to his original question, “So can you help me with my grade?”

After several more questions and a few minutes more of discussion, I ascertained that he was basically asking me to gift him with a bump in his grade. He had readily admitted that he put very little effort into the class, but he didn’t think that should matter. After 13 years in school, he still didn’t understand that grades are earned and that one has to work hard to earn a good grade. How does this happen?

I firmly believe that it begins at home. If all parents emphasize is grades, that’s all kids are going to care about. Not the love of learning, not the sense of accomplishment of doing better in a class, not the discussions and the reading that would open their minds and widen their world. When we focus on nothing but the destination of an A, we miss out on the journey, which is the part that matters. Critical thinkers don’t get that way from grade grubbing. They get that way from studying, considering options, weighing possibilities, trying different methods, and ultimately making informed decisions. This process and these skills are infinitely more important than any letter on a grade report. 

The grade will come, naturally, when kids learn to love learning. If you haven’t already, shift your focus and don’t miss the forest for the trees. Parent your kids into true learning and they will become adults who are lifelong learners.

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3 thoughts on “Teach your kids that learning should always trump grades

  1. There is a tremendous amount of research that intrinsic motivation provides more economic gain than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is easier to dependently begin but harder to independently maintain. If you want your child to be successful in terms of job security, salary and economic status, teach the values of learning for its own sake, excellence to the sake of excellence and being good to others for goodness sake.

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