Apropos of nothing the other night, my son asked me one of those questions. He was clearing the table, just lifting my plate, and in that off-hand way that 12-year-olds have of innocently asking complex questions in expectation of simple answers, he didn’t even pause. “What are grades for?” he said, and walked my plate and fork and knife into the kitchen. I heard the dish clatter into the sink a bit too hard, but didn’t react to it; I had frozen up. Seized. Completely.
It wasn’t quite the, “Where did I come from?” question, but for a family of independent school educators, it lacked none of the gravity, none of the complexity, none of the challenge. I knew it was one of those questions first because I was instantly aware of the myriad possible answers, the tangle of directions this conversation could go, pathways it could take, and what was at stake, and second because my wife and I looked at each other with wide eyes, mine asking, “You want this one, by any chance?” and hers saying, “He asked you.”
I didn’t know what the right speech was, but I felt myself begin, at the speed of thought, to evaluate costs and benefits, permutations, possible outcomes, effects on future conversations, effects on my son’s sense of self worth, and my estimation of what my son wanted to know. What was he asking, anyway?
Was he asking, “How should I think about grades?” which is a good question and not one any teacher or parent should gloss over or take for granted. If we don’t help our kids think about grades, they will arrive at their own conclusions, and in some cases spend years unlearning them. One student I know was 40 years old before he ever heard and believed, “You write well” from a teacher.
Was he asking, “How do my teachers think about grades?” which is harder question and fundamentally speculative outside of the realm of field-of-education-wide generalizations. But a good question, nonetheless. One well worth asking several times a year. As a teacher I can tell you that how teachers think about grades is variously variable in certain small but not insignificant ways by student, by quarter, and by assignment.
Was he asking, “What effect do grades have on my life, what will they do for me, or to me?” which is a question that immediately provokes the protective parent in me, the part of me that casts the world as buoyant and wants my son to see it as a playground. This part of me wants my son to try hard, to learn well, to play, to commit, and to savor childhood and adolescence and adulthood and middle age and the later years even unto death. Living under the threat of another’s judgement dampens the joy of play, of learning, of life.
Or was he asking, at some level that he is not developmentally ready to acknowledge, the really insidious question, “Are my grades me?” That is, are grades a comment on me or on my work? I know this question to be far more complex even than that. Grades can be a reflection of a student, a student’s work, a teacher, an assignment, a home life, a mood, a social situation, a clash of cultures, a time of life, even a conversation in a morning carpool. We live some of our best moments as teachers when we ask, “What else is going on in this kid’s life?”
I have a feeling he just wanted to know why we do it, why we give grades at all. You know, like, whose idea was it? And if that was a part of his question at all, I am proud of him for asking it. Because it is not obvious. And the question itself is born of confidence. There is a confidence buried in that question, “What are grades for?”, that acknowledges that they may not be necessary for learning, that learning and grades are somehow separate. Learning can happen whether we get graded or not, and so, what are grades for? In that light, it is a beautiful question. And he asked it on his own.
But asking a question is a vulnerable act, an unstable position, full of potential and possibility. The answer you get, or rather the experience you have in asking, either opens a door or closes it. The answer you get, or rather the experience you have in asking, determines future experience. Incidentally, I don’t overthink every question my kids ask me, just the important ones. This one had high stakes. Hence, the moment in which my wife and I looked at each other with wide eyes, mine asking, “You want this one, by any chance?” and hers saying, “He asked you.”
And I didn’t know what the right speech was. I just knew this was one more time when, as a parent, I couldn’t panic. I wasn’t allowed to telegraph the small terror I felt at the prospect of saying the wrong thing. (Some day, I am going to do it. I am just going to fall, over the edge, into the abyss of blissful honesty. I am going to surrender to the terror of the responsibility of constantly being in command. I am going to abandon myself to the peace and freedom of not knowing, not needing to know, not having to support the facade of being a responsible parent. On that day, my daughter will ask me, “Papa, what should I do with my life?” and I will say, “I don’t know. I didn’t even know what to do with my life. Most of the time I don’t even know what I don’t know about what I should be doing with my life. I think I don’t know the answer to your question, but I am not really certain of that. I don’t really know whether I know or not. What should you do with your life? You are doing it. Right now.”)
Some day, that is my planned freak out. But not today. So, what to do as my son cleared the table and waited for my response? Many rhetorical devices jumped to mind.
Should I lead with a question? “Why do you ask?” (Which is, in most cases, just an evasion, a parry to buy time. No help in this case. The cavalry was not on its way.)
Should I lead with an affirmation? “That’s a great question.” (Which tends to portend an examination of an issue’s complexities and I wasn’t at all sure that was the right speech in this instance. Or that I could sustain an examination of an issue’s complexities. The long way around the block seemed risky at best.)
Should I probe? “Well, what do you think?” (Which tends to be my default setting as a generally socratic teacher. No good. I was, in this situation, aware that I was not being asked as a teacher but as a parent. This challenge should be met head on.)
Should I dismiss? “Grades are meaningless. Don’t even think about them.” (Not my style or even in my comfort zone. And not true. My son would see through me and I would probably break out in a rash.)
Should I make it seem absurd? “Grades, in the end, are the only thing that matters, the only thing that endures from your school experience. Your grades will be the only thing anyone ever looks at to judge you as a student, as a learner, and as a person in middle school and beyond.” (Not as inaccurate as one might think. Dangerously believable, but certainly not the message I wanted.)
More than anything else I wanted to tell the truth. I was desperate for it, in fact. In moments like this, when my kids ask me real questions, I am not as cerebral as I am intuitive. My intuition has gotten me in trouble in the past, but I rely on it nonetheless. I trust it, and my intuition runs toward telling the truth when it matters. But the truth about grades is multifaceted, and my son didn’t have that much time; the table was almost cleared.
So, I gave him two sides to the issue that, together, I felt could potentially capture the whole complexity.
I said, “I can tell you what grades are suppose to do, and I can also tell you how they are sometimes poorly used.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Grades are supposed to be an objective, judgement free, evaluation of a student’s performance, not of a student, himself, but of what he did, his actions, the degree to which he satisfied the assignment and learned what the teacher wanted him to learn. In that way, they are not supposed to be a reflection of you as a person. They are supposed to be an accurate reflection of what you did – and that can be influenced by a million things. How you are feeling, whether you got enough sleep, whether your natural style learning fits whatever the assignment asked you to do, whether you were absent that day, or distracted by something else. In that way, grades are supposed to give you a sense of how your teacher thinks you are doing. And with that information you can make changes in what you choose to do as a student – if, that is, you are particularly interested in learning what your teacher wants you to learn. If not, then your grades won’t reflect your learning necessarily. They will only reflect the degree to which your goals mesh with your teacher’s goals for you. That is how they are used well.
“Sometimes grades are used not so well. Sometimes they are used to categorize students into groups – like eggs or beef or something. Grade A medium, grade AA large, grade D but fit for human consumption. In that sense, they give people ahead of you, admissions folks and teachers at schools you might get into, a way to label you as fit for a certain place or not. It is a way packaging students and directing their flow through school. The A and B students go here, the C and D students go there. Maybe you can see the problem with that.
“The key is to realize and remember and believe that your grades are not you. And that they reflect what you did as much as anything else that contributed to how hard or easy it was to do it. Does that make sense?”
I thought I might have been over his head at that point, but as usual my son got it.
“Yeah, it’s like when my teacher says, ‘You could have tried harder.’ How do they know that? Sometimes I try as hard as I can and my teacher says, ‘You need to try harder.’ And I can’t. I hate that.”
“Right,” I said. “You know how hard you tried. And really no one else does. Only you. And sometimes your teachers will be wrong about that. But you know in your heart how good you are, no matter what your grades are.”
The next thing he said was appropriately 12 years old. “Can we have dessert?”