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Grades, Success and Tiger Mothers

Sun setting at a factory
David DeHetre, released under the Creative Commons License, some rights reserved

“Once we have accepted and established our principles, the abolition of prizes and external forms of punishment will follow naturally. Man, disciplined through liberty, begins to desire the true and only prize which will never belittle or disappoint him,- the birth of human power and liberty within that inner life of his from which his activities must spring.”

— Dr. Maria Montessori
My System of Education

(A Montessori quick bite from The Center for Guided Montessori Studies)

On January 8th, 2011 The Wall Street Journal published an upsetting article by author Amy Chua titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”. An excerpt from her new book, the article claims that the secret to academic success is tyrannical control over the child. Ms. Chua proudly explains that her two daughters were never allowed to have play dates, choose their own extracurricular activities, or receive any grade other than an A.

Furthermore, she explains what she calls her “Chinese” negative motivation technique – insulting her children by calling them “garbage” and threatening them with the loss of meals, presents, toys and birthday parties. Ms. Chua says, “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.” In one particularly abusive example, she recounts denying her daughter the right to eat or use the bathroom for hours until she mastered a piano piece.

Ms. Chua calls this technique of parenting through physical and emotional domination the “Chinese mother” style. In recent television appearances she has defiantly shown an appalling lack of self awareness of the cruelty she has wrought on her children. She will, she says, leave it for “Western” mothers to raise the “losers”.

The invidious stereotypes of Ms. Chua’s article have caused some controversy to be sure. Like many others, I can say that her characterization of Asian families is certainly not backed up in my experience – and I’m married into one. I suspect that Ms. Chua has rationalized her abusive behavior by cloaking it in the generalization that she is, somehow, normal.

Ah, but only if she were that rare! There are many parents of all ethnicities who think any behavior should be excused in the name of raising grades. Children hate working, goes the thinking, therefore the only way to get them to excel is to subjugate their will to their wiser elders.

As Montessorians, we know that cultivating intrinsic motivation is the most effective way to increase the productivity of both children and adults. Ms. Chua was correct in that she could, for a time, force her children to do better in school by dominating and emotionally abusing them. But in her memoir, Ms. Chua herself recounts the dramatic rebellion of her younger daughter.

But perhaps the weakest element of Amy Chua’s reasoning is the assumption that grades will themselves lead to success in life. Even many of the arguments made against her accept the axiom that a high GPA promises wealth, prosperity and happiness. In fact, this is not the case. The tragedy is that she traumatized her daughters for nothing.

What is success? If measured by income, grades at best weakly correlate with success. Persons who get A’s and B’s generally earn a bit more over their lifetimes than those who received C’s and D’s in high school and college. On the other hand, many studies paint a very different picture. For example, a longitudinal study of valedictorians show that they are no more – and perhaps less – likely than their peers to be successful in any measureable way. This study was described by Sheila Tobias as “An important corrective to the notion that success in high school inevitably prefigures success in college, in life, or in careers.” Another study of success by Richard St. John also concluded that grading does not lead to success and identified 8 traits that were strongly correlated.

“ Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn. ”

— Dr. Alice Miller

In other words, good grades mean something but not a lot. Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Isaac Newton were all undistinguished students, and Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade. Both Charles Darwin and Carl Jung were called “stupid” by their teachers, and Louis Pasteur was near the bottom of his class in college. Leo Tolstoy flunked right out. Werner Von Braun failed algebra and Louisa May Alcott was told she would never succeed as a writer.

Academic success is at best an imperfect predictor of success if measured by either income or notoriety.

So, what is the best predictor of success? New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman makes a convincing argument for emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to understand and cooperate well with other human beings. In a study of the outcomes of students who attended Harvard in the 1940s, Goleman found that those “with the highest test scores in college were not particularly successful compared to their lower-scoring peers in terms of salary, productivity or status in their field, nor did they have the greatest life satisfaction, nor the most happiness with friendships, family and romantic relationships."

On the other hand, Goleman identified a clear connection between emotional intelligence and every other measure of success that he measured. People with a high EI are the ones “who truly succeed in work as well as play, building flourishing careers and lasting, meaningful relationships.” Is it a coincidence that peaceful, cooperative work is at the heart of the Montessori method, rather than grades? Once again, modern science catches up with Dr. Montessori’s prescience.

Certainly doing well in school doesn’t necessitate the abandonment of individuality, nor does it follow that if you receive good marks in school that you must be an unoriginal thinker.

But three things are readily apparent:

  • The traditional school system rewards rote memorization more than creativity, yet the workplace requires creativity more often than rote memorization.
  • The traditional school system pits students against each other in class rankings and measures each child’s work in isolation, yet it is success in navigating the dynamics of group projects that plays a more essential role in the modern workplace.
  • By pressuring a child to do better in school, a parent also pressures a child to become that thing which the school most rewards – a rote memorizer pitted against other rote memorizers.

Integral to the Montessori method is respect for the child. The child is neither a tabula rasa, nor a willful opponent, but a unique and marvelous creation. Dr. Montessori built her method on the bedrock of mutual understanding, cooperative projects and conflict resolution. We hold in our hearts the faith that a more peaceful and joyful world is found in the secrets of childhood Dr. Montessori studied a century ago.

Science now suggests that the very same method could unlock a more productive and wealthier world as well. In economically uncertain times, what are our leaders waiting for?

Thoughts for the day:

    • If there is so much evidence that grades don’t matter, why are they still used for assessment?
    • What role does assessment and progress reports play in a Montessori environment? How do you personally support children’s natural motivation to learn without imposing predetermined goals and standards?
    • In Montessori we consider observation to be our main method of assessment. What systems have you put in place to help you perform this most important part of our job?
    • How can you use authentic Montessori assessment strategies to support the needs and interests of your students, while respecting each individual’s creativity and unique learning style?
    • How can you help your parents better understand the importance of intrinsic motivation? Will this help you to strengthen the partnership between school and home?

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