in Cognitive Wisdom, Prism of Life, Redefining Education

                                          Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
“Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” –Ivan Illich

Prof. Karen Arnold in her book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians , profiles 81 high school valedictorians, utilizing well over 11,000 pages of interview transcripts accumulated during her 14-year project.

She has followed the progress of these top high school achievers to study the nature of academic success, its costs and rewards, and its effects on career and personal life. Valedictorians, Arnold says, often find their callings in ways which differ from expectations others have of them, including their college professors.

They’re extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally,she said, “but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence. The opportunities to become famous or change the world as an accountant, for example, are few and far between.”

Her subjects mostly ended up engaging in conventional careers such as accountants, physicians, lawyers, engineers, physical therapists, nurses and teachers. Others chose different paths – one became a poet, another a social justice activist. Four never finished college and five of the women, two with master’s degrees and two with doctorates, opted out of the labor force rearing children.

Arnold was disturbed, however, to see that valedictorians on the whole lacked knowledge of how to develop and manage a career. While they excelled in college, earning an overall 3.6 grade point average, Arnold said they received insufficient mentoring from faculty on choosing a career properly. The increasing demands of research and other tasks on faculty, she said, is a cause for concern if it leaves them less time to provide guidance for students of all abilities outside of the classroom.

Even though most of them are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school toppers do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas.

They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.

In fact, research goes on to show that what makes students likely to be impressive in the classroom is the same thing that makes them less likely to be winners outside the classroom.

Academic grade is an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules. Qualities that essentially rewards conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.

Primarily most of the top graders saw their job as getting good grades rather than an opportunity to deep learning.

Ironically, Arnold found that intellectual students who enjoy learning struggle in high School. They all have passions they want to focus on, are more interested in achieving Maestry, but often find the structure of school stifling. Whereas top academic performers follow the rules and prize top grades over skills and deep understanding.

If you are good at playing by the rules and could possibly relate to the tribe aspiring for top grades, then make sure you have a path that works for you. This set of people do great in school and in many areas of life, where there are clear answers and a clear path. But mind you, when path is not clear the life can be really hard  for them. Without a path to follow they often tend to get lost. Research shows that when they are unemployed, their happiness drops 120% more than their non complaint counterparts.

There is a common misconception that top graders can take care of themselves,” Arnold said, “but just because they could get ‘A’s doesn’t mean they can translate academic achievement into career achievement.”

Arnold said the lack of mentoring adds up to more than a series of individual tragedies, since the valedictorians are potential leaders. Therefore education should focus more on the overall needs of students by aligning itself to the strengths of each students.  Rather than making students good at everything, the focus should be on identifying their strengths through continuous exploration so that they could spend majority of their time on subjects that aligns perfectly with their interest.

Once the interest based on their strength is identified correctly, student invariably ends up on the path of deep learning. And in the process becomes consistently good at producing desired results. In fact research shows that the more hours per day you spend doing what you’re good at, the less stressed you feel, the more you laugh, smile, and feel you are being treated with respect.

Shawn Achor the bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage explained that intelligence and technical skills only predict 25% of success:

If we know the intelligence and technical skills of an employee, we can actually only predict about 25% of their job success. 75% of long term job success is predicted not by intelligence and technical skills, which is normally how we hire, educate and train, but it’s predicted by three other umbrella categories.

It’s optimism (which is the belief that your behavior matters in the midst of challenge), your social connection (whether or not you have depth and breadth in your social relationships), and the way that you perceive stress.

Therefore, students who want success in their future should worry a little less about grades and more about optimism. It’s not success that brings happiness, the formula is other way round.

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  1. Hi Piyush!
    Extremely well written and thought provoking article. Your suggestion to the schools, for nurturing the strength of child is extremely good idea. But we also need to understand that most children are not born talented, they don’t even know what I’d their strength, or difficult for teaching staff to identify the strength.
    Some basic education is necessary for each individual, for whichever field he/she is talented. We need to identify the minimum reqd education for each individual. This minimum education, as per our Indian system upto class 10th, which I feel is too much. Probably minimum common education should be limited to class 5. Afterwards efforts should be made on strength of individual.
    This is purely my thought.

    • Your observations are quite valid. Our present education system is so obsessed with grades that parents expect nothing less than an A+ in all the subjects.

      Is there any point in scoring A+ in geography and Sanskrit if student is aspiring to be a doctor.

      The efforts that could have easily been focused on few subjects often get scattered, affecting the desired outcome. Definitely defies all logic.

      The System has to stop propagating that all students can be good at everything.