I went to a high school with no grades. When I tell people that, they usually look at me like I’m some Martian anarchist who shouldn’t be here. Instead of a report card with lonely letters sitting on a blank page, we received comments for each class at the end of every term, some more than two pages long. We had regular conferences with our teachers to discuss our progress, so you always knew how you were doing in a class. And if you knew you were doing well, it was less an indicator of success and more a red flag that you should take harder classes.
My high school’s pedagogy made sense to me, and if you care a great deal about college acceptance rates, it worked. We have plenty of former students at Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Stanford. More importantly, when I run into my old classmates in San Francisco, they usually want to talk about Emily Dickinson, or the political climate of the Middle East in 1979. When you can’t measure success by a letter grade, you take ownership of your learning; you latch onto what excites you and fold it into your personality.
Research psychologist Carol Dweck, who popularized the idea of malleable as opposed to fixed intelligence, was quoted in The Chronicle Review describing Stanford students: “The students who thrive are not necessarily the ones who come in with the perfect scores. It’s the ones who love what they’re doing and go at it vigorously.” The catch is, to go at learning vigorously, you might have to let go of your perfect GPA. Learning requires that you stretch yourself in new directions, and maybe get a few C’s or D’s along the way. In four years at Stanford, you should be able to find at least one class that challenges you so much that even with your best effort, you come out with a D. If you engaged with the material and tried your best, a D is a great symbol of the risk you took. If you figured out how to do well on the midterms without going to lecture, an A is a symbol that you played it safe.
Sometimes when I talk to my peers at Stanford, I feel a climate of unnecessary stress. The friends that I have outside of school seem much more realistic about the demands of their personal responsibilities. The stakes are higher outside of school, making rent, paying bills, finding a job, yet the stress levels are higher on campus. When you change your attitude about grades and success, some of that anxiety lifts. A professor of mine began a series of lectures with the warning: “I am going to teach you something with no practical, economic or social significance.” Those should be exciting words. A challenge to learn for the sake of learning, an invitation to work for the sake of work alone. So I implore you: stop checking to see where you fall on the curve and start learning how to learn on your own terms.
Stretch yourself in new directions by emailing Renee at firstname.lastname@example.org.