I've been mulling this subject over for a while; I read a few unschooling bloggers (one of my favorites is here), with whom I agree about the enthusiasm required for learning if not always the method. And then PJ O'Rourke wrote a piece this week on the perils of letting the A students run everything, so I mulled some more (if it was colder I might have turned to mulled wine, but that's another post).
What do grades get our children? Do they matter except as an indicator (when they're good, at least) that knowledge has been absorbed and will be (God willing) permanently retained? Do they tell us this at all? I'm thinking mostly about grades in elementary school as I write this, but much of it would apply to middle and high school as well.
I think our children's grades provide two things for us as parents. First of all, bad grades can be a good warning bell that things are not working and that something must be done. What that something is - well, deciding that's called parenting, isn't it? But they can serve as a bellwether for what's wrong, even more than they indicate what's right. Why don't they always indicate that things are going right? I'll get to that later. Stay with me.
The second thing grades are good for is as currency. They can get children places that they need to go. Except in the strangest situations, schools expect a show of grades and test scores before they accept a child into a gifted program, or before a private school accepts a child at all. Like it or not, this is the way life will work for our children through grad school; getting used to caring about grades is necessary for this reason alone. In reality, these not-always-accurate but objective measurements of performance will likely dog our children in adulthood as well; have you filled out your self-evaluation at work, written your performance objectives, and so on and so forth, lately? Such a process doesn't always reflect the value someone adds to a company, but we're hard-pressed to think of a better way of meting out awards, raises, and (let's face it) the boot.
Other than these two necessary evils, why should we think about the grades our kids earn at all? Should we focus on them with our children as a goal in and of themselves? Actually, I don't think so. Or, if we do focus on them - talk to our children about them - we should explain in an age-appropriate fashion just what grades are good for and also what they are not good for. I think the goal is to get kids to focus on them enough to care that they are good, and then walk away.
Why? Because good grades in themselves aren't an indicator of the most important things in life. They don't measure creativity, intellectual curiosity, or critical thinking. Those three things are a thousand times more important to encourage in children than an 'A' on a science test. Enough of all three and you will have a seriously intelligent child on your hands - one who will be more than capable of handling whatever is coming in her future. What are they? The first two are the essence of finding something interesting in everything you encounter; they are the ability to challenge yourself to engage with the world at every turn, no matter how boring things seem to be at the moment. They are the desire to run down rabbit trails after an idea that fascinates you until you've exhausted it and yourself - all for the fun of doing so, not because anyone offered you a reward first. The last of the three comes after long experience with its friends, creativity and intellectual curiosity. Critical thinking comes when you've learned to absorb and process the world around you, and you find you can make comparisons, value judgments, and come to logical conclusions about what you've experienced.
These three traits are the hallmark of a mind that is alive to the value of ideas and constantly looking for new ways to experience the world. They are not found in children who have been taught only to figure out what will be on the next test and study for it; they are found in children who have been constantly challenged to explore the world around them and make it their own.
Unlike some (some unschoolers, perhaps?) I don't think school learning and these three traits are mutually exclusive, any more than I think sitting at a desk for a set number of hours a day doing legal work precludes me from being interested in the complicated workings of the life that is all around me. Yes, children - all of us - need to learn to figure out what's going to be on the next test, but we don't need to let that task consume us or define who we are in any way. Our intelligence goes much deeper than that, or it can if we give our curiosity and creativity enough room. As parents, our most important job in educating our children is to do just that.