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The Truth About Our Obsession With Grades

No doubt, grades are tremendously important. They are a tried-and-tested method of judging a student’s ability and performance. The grades students receive on assessments inform a teacher’s teaching and are the basis on which teachers adjust their teaching and learning methodology. They help teachers evaluate which sections of the syllabus need further reinforcement and which others, extension work. Through this, the school can tailor its learning to best meet individual needs so that students can maximise their potential and score well on the ultimate summative assessment: school and/or IGCSE exams. It is worth remembering that these grades are an essential criterion for entry to reputed local and international universities. From a professional standpoint, grades are important too, especially right at the start of a person’s career. From an employer’s perspective, the higher one’s grades, the greater the potential for superior job performance. The call for one’s first job interview, then, is largely based on academic performance, as reflected in one’s grades.

This would then imply that our preoccupation with grades is justified. The sad reality is that many students base their sense of self-worth on their grades, a claim substantiated by a University of Michigan study which places this number of students at 80%. Additionally, society, too, equates our children’s intelligence with grades and we, as parents, feel the pressure to boast about our children’s aptitude and achievements in front of others. If my neighbour’s-sister’s-daughter scored A*s across-the-board in her IGCSEs, it means she is more intelligent than my daughter who scored a more modest combination of As and Bs. The same neighbour’s-sister’s-daughter, being an ‘overachiever’ would ‘get ahead’ in life, get a ‘good job’ and become a ‘big boss’ with a 5-figure salary! Why are these trite phrases so deeply embedded in a parent’s psyche? Repeating them over and over to our children every time they cross an academic checkpost makes them feel that getting good grades is the only route to a better and prosperous life, that their only purpose in life is to score well because if they fail to, everyone else will leapfrog them to greater success and happiness. Is it not acceptable for children to be moderate achievers instead of overachievers? Is it not acceptable if my child wants to be a wellness coach instead of an engineer? Even if we did get the grades is it fair to impose such expectations on them?

Despite grades opening doors for admission to the best colleges and universities and enabling children to follow their desired career paths, they are not the only factor a university looks at when granting admission. Given that most colleges have an outstanding pool of applicants to choose from, the very best applicants are able to show that they can contribute much more to the character and profile of a university than just stellar grades. Hence, a good international school looks to develop more than just academic ability. Yes, we want our students to be high achievers in IGCSE exams, but we also want to make them good people and caring, thoughtful citizens. We work to make them well-mannered, help them embody the right beliefs and values as well as develop a positive mindset and attitude to life. We encourage them to be well-read, engaging conversationalists, hone their leadership skills through DofE and JASS programmes, for instance, and become sensitive, contributing members of their community and society at large. Are these goals not as important as grades? Do we just want students who can rattle off the formula of every single financial ratio under the sun or those who show empathy and consideration for others, who are risk-takers and change-makers? Ask any teacher and they will tell you that their fondest memories of students are not of those who have aced their exams but of children who excited them in class, engaged them in thought-provoking conversations, had enquiring minds, were courteous and compassionate and whose humour kept lessons entertaining and their peers smiling. These are the students who leave a long-lasting impression on any school they are a part of.

I personally know many people, my peers, who were ordinary, at best, in terms of academic achievement but have gone on to occupy top positions in well-established companies across the world. Was it just their grades that got them there? No, say many employers emphatically. Employees must have work experience and strong soft skills, such as effective communication, public relations, leadership and problem-solving abilities and the skill to adapt and respond to the ever-shifting global dynamic. Employees who conduct successful audit checks, file corporate tax returns or accurately predict future economic trends are valuable, but there are many of those around. However, employees who can do all the afore mentioned and handle the stress of deadlines, deliver a convincing sales pitch at a board meeting, have a high EQ and work amicably and professionally with others are the real scene-stealers.

The inescapable reality is that good grades will certainly help facilitate a relatively seamless journey through academic life and give them the best possible shot at professional success. However, we are doing a great disservice to our current and future generations if the only lesson we teach them is that without top grades and the most high-profile jobs, they have not lived up to their full potential. As a teacher, I have a job that gives me satisfaction, makes me happy and enriches me every single day… all without 10 A*s and a 4.0 CGPA!

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