Last week my daughter broke down in a pool of tears.
Trying to understand why she felt she was struggling in school when her report card indicated otherwise, she shared with me the practice of teachers rewarding students with an ‘A’ simply for effort, regardless of whether their answers reflect actual learning. My son, now a high-performing 10th grader, later confirmed a similar practice and experience at his prior school. What interests me has been their different takes and interpretations of this practice.
My son, in his younger years, viewed completion grades as an opportunity to ‘game’ the system, getting away with doing far less than he was capable of at the time. Naturally bright, charming and capable of excellence with minimal effort, it consequently became difficult to incentivize and instill the value of work ethic and discipline.
My daughter, on the other hand, consistently puts forth a good effort and wants to succeed. Excelling in some areas, while struggling in others, completion grades have become a meaningless mockery of her very real effort, while failing to provide her guidance in those areas where she needs to improve.
As I reflected on her tears and pain, I couldn’t help but think about our society’s noble, if mis-guided effort to build self-esteem in our children by declaring “everyone’s a winner!”
Yes, I believe every child should be valued as a human being and that the first step towards self-empowerment begins with the courage to try. I believe that every child has his/her own unique gifts to offer the world and is equally deserving of opportunities to both learn and achieve.
But when we reward effort by the same measure as output; when we reward completion without regard or consequence for quality, it becomes impossible for us to differentiate ourselves and truly understand the measure of our strengths and weaknesses. “Better to make a hard-earned ‘C’ than an easy ‘A’,” my father used to say. And it’s true.
Rewarding effort by the same measure as result ultimately demotivates and undermines self-esteem. Rewarding completion without regard for quality incentivizes complacency and mediocrity, a surefire recipe for disaster.
A while back I wrote a post called, The Courage to Try. I wrote that true confidence comes from within — not only from the courage to try, but the ability to persevere through difficulty, our commitment to see a project thought to completion, and our willingness to both fail and rise up again.
But confidence also comes from taking pride in a job well done. It comes from our commitment to learning and excellence, attainable only in so far as we are first capable of understanding those areas where we still need to grow.
How do you feel about rewarding effort by the same measure as achievement? In an increasingly global competitive marketplace, what are the individual and societal implications of rewarding effort equally, without regard for differentiating skills or ability? How do we build true confidence, discipline and a passion for excellence from within, when our efforts are dis-incentivized from without?