29 March 2019

"Let’s create a culture that encourages excellence and doing well academically, but one that does not make grades the only purpose of school and elevate them to an unhealthy level."

We have been discussing the human tendency to pursue simplicity in our complex world. On a cultural level, that has led us to creating a simplified formula for success in life that has a number of misconceptions to it. It all starts with the idea that grades are the paramount reason for school.

As I said last week, grades are very important. We want our children to pursue doing well in class and to do well academically. Grades are an indicator of future academic success and can impact a student’s options for university and for scholarships. But when the grades become the only focus and purpose of school, we do a disservice to our children and actually create a negative academic environment for them.

There are two major problems we create when we forget that grades are to assess the learning that has taken place and not to be the primary goal of school itself. One is that the student becomes motivated only by the extrinsic pursuit of the grade. Teachers everywhere every day hear the same question. “Will that be on the test?” That does not seem like a bad question on the surface, but the issue here is what the question subtly says about school. “If it is not on the test, then I don’t need to learn it and therefore do not care about it.” What they care about is simply the grade, and many students know that this is true for their parents as well. Over 64% of high school students in the U.S. have admitted to cheating on tests because of the pressure to get good grades. When students are told that it is their grades that will determine their future (not if they actually learn the material), we create an environment where cheating is often seen as the answer to the intense pressure and stress students face.

A second negative effect when grades are the sole purpose of education is that they become the sole indicator of student success. This results in grades becoming an important part of a student’s identity and self-worth. In a 2002 study, over 80% of students admitted that a big part of their identity and self-worth came from the grades they earned in school. This is negative on both ends of the spectrum. For those who do not do well academically, this can have a lifelong and incorrect impact on how they see themselves. For those who do very well academically, it can give them a false sense of self-worth and identity because it is so dependent on the grades and not who they are as a person.

I will say it again. Grades are important. But we need to create a school environment that balances academic success with other things and does not make grades the sole motivator for students. Dalat has taken some steps to try and do this:
  • Dalat does not have an A+ in its grading system
  • Dalat moved away from the highest GPA being the only criteria for the valedictorian
  • Dalat is moving away from AP courses being weighted and counting for more in a student’s GPA
  • The middle school no longer calculates and includes the students’ GPA on report cards
  • The ES has moved away from grades and uses standards and objectives for their report cards
As a school and community of parents, let’s pursue a healthy balance for our children. Let’s create a culture that encourages excellence and doing well academically, but one that does not make grades the only purpose of school and elevate them to an unhealthy level. Let’s make learning the main goal of school again.

Written by Karl Steinkamp

Karl Steinkamp is passionate about Dalat International School and training up young people. Karl was a student at Dalat and returned with a degree in education as a student teacher, high school principal, and now Head of School since 2006.
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