Excellence not Success

Waiting in the doctor’s office today, my oldest asked what I was reading. When I told her it was Guy Claxton’s What’s the Point of School?, she looked confused. “Mommy, I know what the point of school is. Why do you need to read a book on it? It’s to learn and be patient and to learn to be nice, and respectful and honest, intelligent, and kind. You go to school to learn to be part of a group. That’s the point of school.” (pauses) “Oh! And magic tricks. You can’t learn magic tricks if you don’t go to school.”

Magic tricks aside, she sees school as a place to learn and grow. For her, it’s a shaping environment that will help her in her head, her heart, and her community. This view of school all too often gets lost in the desire to have the ‘best’ students, the ‘hardest’ workers, Ivy-league at the expense of Junior League. Even when we try to mitigate its less than desirable effects, school can too easily become a shaping place for the wrong reasons. Successful students, measured by grades, grow up to be measured by their bank account; the higher the number the better. Shouldn’t it be about something more?

I want excellence for myself and my children. When I was a kid, my grandfather told me that he didn’t care if I was a toll-taker as long as I was the best one I could possibly be. Whatever you do, be excellent at it he told all of his grandchildren. We have, unfortunately, traded in excellence in education for success. The former is intrinsic. It is a state of mind that can be applied to everything one does and becomes part of who we are. It is what schools should teach, what everyone should strive for in everything. The latter depends on others to tell us how we’re doing. It’s extrinsic – without a bank statement or a grade or a job performance it’s hard to tell if it’s been achieved.

Standardized tests are a prime example of this. What they measure has nothing to do with personality, kindness, honesty, or community. Nowhere in her description of school did my daughter mention that the point of school was to learn to take multiple choice tests. The tests measure for the academically successful students, not personal excellence. If we aren’t even bothering to check for those qualities, how can teachers be expected to spend any time developing them in their students. Creativity has to be replaced with cramming to make sure that the school passes the next round of standardization.

So, while learning success at school, she will learn excellence at home. The hope is that the two join together to give her the life that she wants, a well-lived life however she defines it. I want her to have a great education, but I want it to be more than facts. I want it to include experiences and empathy. I want her to understand that the world extends beyond her eyes. I want her to be the best her that she can be. I want her to understand the wonder that is Earth. These are all things that she can’t be tested on, but will make her life richer. I want her to learn magic.



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