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September 30, 2016

What’s Your Preference?

Fostering Community

“If I want to have a strong career I need an education and for a higher education I need a challenge and for a challenge I need to have the courage, strength, commitment, power, friendship, brains and respect of a Trafalgar girl.”

– Grade 5 applicant to Trafalgar Castle School

What delightful words from a young girl! Run on sentence aside – don’t fret, worried parents, our English teachers will soon fix that – I can’t help but admire the logical progression of this child’s thinking. At the early age of 9, she already understands the concept of a leading indicator. And by that, I mean she already knows that the development and demonstration of the attributes she lists – courage, strength, commitment, power, friendship, brains and respect – suggest that she will achieve her ultimate goal of having a strong career. These are impressive words, indeed. But do you know what I love most about this child’s comment? Not once does she mention getting good grades.

For some students, grades become their singular focus and even their final destination. They state quite plainly that they need higher grades. Need, mind you. Not want, but need. Sometimes it’s to ensure acceptance into a competitive post-secondary program; other times it’s to secure a scholarship or award. But oftentimes it’s because they are allowing grades to define them, and without achieving that coveted 98% they feel unfilled (at best) or anxious and depressed (at worst). Now I understand the sad reality of grade pressure on our senior girls but that’s a topic for another time. What I want to consider here is the limited understanding some students have about the relationship between personal inputs and academic outcomes.

When I talk with dissatisfied grade-centric students, I always ask the same two questions. First, “What do you think goes into the making of a grade?” And by this I mean, what role do things like hard work, class participation, self-reflection, and openness to feedback play? Secondly, “What do you need to do differently in order to get a better grade?” And here’s where the problem can start. Depending upon the student’s answer to question #2, I can usually determine the likelihood of better grades being in her probable future.

The concept of our preferred versus our probable future is not new. As the terms suggest, our preferred future is what we would like to have happen; our probable future is what is likely to happen. In a perfect world, our preferred and our probable futures align. Whether or not they do oftentimes depends upon our understanding of cause and effect.

I see problems on the horizon when students stare at me blankly when asked what they need to do differently in order to get the grades they desire. For some reason, they struggle to see the relationship between their own inputs and their eventual outcomes. Instead, they talk about external factors – the teacher marking too hard, or tests not being fair, or the classroom instruction not working for them. Could any of these things be true? Absolutely. And I’m always prepared to explore their concerns with an eye to improving classroom instruction or academic programming. But often these “reasons”, as they see them, are more the student’s attempt to understand (or rationalize) why her achievement is not where she wants it to be.

If this happens, I usually move the conversation to a discussion of Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Will the student’s grades change if she keeps doing the same thing over and over again? Probably not. Accepting this – after we share a giggle at the sheer simplicity of Einstein’s logic – is the first step in understanding that we each play an important role in shaping our preferred future. Once a student understands this, she’s that much closer to where she wants to go, and we’re that much more able as a school to help her get there. But more important, when a student engages fully in realizing her preferred future, it becomes far more exciting and expansive than just getting good grades.

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