That F Will Make You Smarter!

Jan 25, 2018

Since an early age my parents have told me that any grade I get on a test, a project, or a report card is not reflective of my intelligence. They know it will only hold me back and confine my identity to whether or not I can demonstrate my knowledge in a medium that so often devalues the importance of being a learner before a test taker.

I had translated this academic mentality into thinking tests could never be of value to my personal pool of knowledge, and grades could only be useful for the education system to “put me in my place.” That conclusion allowed me to become more aware of our construct of education, thus giving me the desire to be involved in its reformation. 

But I was wrong. There will always be a need to track understanding and the expansion and evaluation of that understanding. So tests will always have value; they are the ability to quantify a piece of academic growth. But it’s not the tests that were my issue, it’s how we treat the answers. How are we to grow when we aren’t allowed to be wrong without penalty? 

Nathaniel Edmunds, a previous teacher and mentor of mine, has a desire for a different kind of dialogue about tests. “I don’t know anybody who has a dinner table conversation where it’s like, ‘Hey, so you got an 88. What does that mean to you?’... It’s not really like they’re digesting [the value of the outcome of the test]... if it was a “bad score” it tends to spin into the stuff they don’t like about their school environment. And if it was a high number then it’s just pats on the back and ‘you’re perfect’ which then, FYI, doesn’t do that kid any favors.” 

Right now, it is difficult to talk about test results critically because there is either a reward or punishment depending on one's performance. Even though there is an opportunity for growth, tests have consequences on our grades, with accumulative consequence on our lives in and beyond high school.

The negative repercussions of doing poorly on a test are hard to overlook when they are so prominent in a student's life. And vise versa. There is less incentive to improve when the system is telling us we're good enough at the top as is. Failure is incredibly important. We must learn from mistakes and false conclusions. To do that we must become comfortable enough immersing ourselves in it to understand why it is we failed.

Regardless of a student’s comprehension of content material going into a class, we are consistently expected to perform to a predetermined standard having access to the exact same material as our peers. If I’m standing in a 3 foot hole and I’m told to jump 1 foot above ground, I’m going to have to jump 4 feet high. The assumption was I’d only need to jump 1 foot in the air, and that assumption creates a near impossible feat for me.

I’ve been put in situations like this before. I barely try to make that leap. It’s unrealistic. Even if I do make an effort, even if I feel like I’ve jumped 3 feet in the air, I’m told that I didn’t meet expectations, I’m below average, possibly even that I’ve failed. Even if my hard work is recognized, I’m still going to be penalized. What if my thinking on the topic evolved greatly? Wouldn’t it be easier for me to continue on that path if I’m rewarded for my development? 

To talk about the opposite side of things: if someone only has to jump 2 feet, then they may argue “why bother going any higher?” And what about those who stand above ground level? One could easily perform “perfectly,” personally underachieve, and be praised. They could be working to the bare minimum of their ability, with that being their only developmental experience. How, as a society, are we expecting intellectual expansion when our own structure of learning desires both uniform intellect, and progression? 

There has never been, or dare I say never will be, an area of understanding that was not one day further expandable. Our evaluation system disregards the idea that knowledge is only a perpetual pursuit. We, every individual driving this society, need to start acting on and talking about what we have learned. From that, what we can learn; not just what is required of us to learn.

There needs to be room for self-exploration through failure, perpetuating the idea that as Edmunds said, "we're all just going through degrees of inaccuracy... we can't be so full of hubris to subject reality to our concepts."

Leonid Eichfeld is a regular contributor to Raise Your Voice.