First Comes Achievement. Then Comes Confidence.

A few weeks back, I wrote a bit here on the Radical titled Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid.  In it, I shared the story of my daughter — who came home broken one day because her progress report wasn’t what she expected it to be.  Her peers were earning threes and fours, but her report was covered in twos — and while she knows little about what those numbers really mean, she felt like a failure.  That broke my heart.

A reader named David Cain — who happens to have an equally vibrant six year old daughter — stopped by and left a brilliant comment that you should read in full.  Here’s the part that caught my eye, though:

Your daughter does not “master expected outcomes,” she does much, much more as she already demonstrates mastery of unexpected outcomes. Her own genius shines through the narrow parameters of a grading and assessment system that was poorly able to meet the needs of twentieth-century learning, let alone 21.5-century learning.

David’s right, isn’t he.  EVERY kid learns much, much more than the “expected outcomes” during the course of any given school year.

(click here to enlarge/view/download original image on Flickr)


Whether it happens inside or outside of our classrooms, our kids are always learning.

Some master new interpersonal skills, giving them the ability to work in groups or to serve as a leader in formal or informal settings.  Some become more confident in themselves, proving once and for all that they really are competent and capable learners.  Some discover their lifelong passions, falling in love with a topic or a subject that leaves them energized every time that they think about it.  Some begin to recognize the connection between their own actions and success, developing the independence characteristic of successful individuals.

Some fail for the first time — and then realize that moving beyond failure is simply a part of a life well-lived.  Some wrestle with difficult friendships and the impact that those relationships can have on one’s well-being and sense of satisfaction.  Some start to see criticism as a form of coaching, designed to improve rather than to destroy.  Some realize that an entire world’s worth of learning is an Internet connection away and begin clicking their way to new discoveries on their own.

What does this all mean for us classroom teacher types?

First, we need to stop defining our students as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that schools are required to report on.  

Doing so cheapens “the whole child” that we used to be so passionate about protecting.  In our quest to identify and then remediate “struggling students”(read: the kids likely to score poorly on standardized reading and math exams at the end of the school year), we’ve forgotten that there are plenty of reasons that those exact same students deserve to be celebrated. And whether we will admit it or not, overlooking the successes of struggling students influences our interactions with the kids in our classrooms.  If you are genuinely convinced that a kid is a failure, how likely are you to work hard to help them succeed?


But more importantly, we also have to make sure that our students don’t define THEMSELVES as failures simply because they haven’t yet mastered the small handful of outcomes that we are required to report on.

What I worry about the most with my daughter — who is a mirror reflection of many of the kids in my classroom — is that she has already begun to doubt herself.  She knows that doing well in school is important.  She knows that the “report card” — which is filled out by someone who is always judging her, is sent home in a special envelope a few times a year, and must be signed by her mom and dad — matters more than anything else that happens in school.  She also knows that (1). Kids are being ranked and sorted by the numbers that appear on those report cards and that (2). She’s at the bottom of the pile.

What she doesn’t know is that in a lot of ways, she’s MORE than the intellectual equal of her peers.  She may not have mastered all of her word families yet, but she probably knows more about life in Colonial America than anyone in her class.  It’s true that she’s a level or two behind in her reading, but ask her about how the structures and functions of individual plants aid in the survival of species, and she’ll talk your ear off.  “Tell me more, Daddy!” — proof of her curiosity and her appetite for learning — comes out of her mouth a thousand times a day.

One of the quotes that is currently driving my own thinking about classroom feedback and assessment comes from this Jan Chappius and Rick Stiggins article.  They write:

First comes achievement and then comes confidence.  With increased confidence, comes the belief that learning is possible.  Success must be framed in terms of academic attainments that represent a significant personal stretch.  Focused effort with an expectation of success is essential.  Students must come to honestly believe that what counts here — indeed the only thing that counts here — is that learning results from the effort expended.

If Chappius and Stiggins are right that achievement precedes confidence, that confidence determines effort and that effort leads to success, then our top assessment priority must be to point out to every student the places where they ARE achieving and where they HAVE succeeded through focused effort.  But that can’t happen when our definitions of “achievement” and “success” are limited to “mastering expected outcomes.”  That can only happen when we start to celebrate the unexpected outcomes that our kids are mastering.



Related Radical Reads:

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

New Feedback Activity: Not Yet/You Bet Lists


4 thoughts on “First Comes Achievement. Then Comes Confidence.

  1. Philip Cummings

    Preach on, Brother Bill! 😉 Evelyn already thinks she’s terrible at math. She’s not. She actually gets the concepts and can enjoy the problem solving, but she isn’t fast at it. Therefore, she doesn’t do well on the times math fact tests, and she thinks she’s bad at math. Ugh! She loves stories so she comes home every day asking great questions and wanting me to help her find out more about whatever they are learning about in science or social studies. She’s going to be fine, but those scores! The rating and ranking–they just aren’t helpful, and I honestly have no idea what they mean. Going over her work with her is much more beneficial to me and to her.

    I find this to be true in my classroom, too. This past school year I tried to do a better and more consistent job of conferencing with my students individually and talking about their learning. The evaluation/assessment part of my class was much better, but I still had to give scores, and I still saw kids feeling defeated even after their growth and success had been pointed out. I hate grades–traditional or standards-based. I hate them. Ugh.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      The thoughts you just shared about Evelyn are EXACTLY why grades need to die a horrible death.

      Not only are they unhealthy for students and uninformative for parents, they are often inaccurate reflections of what kids actually know.

      They are one of the crappiest practices that we use in education — and yet they still have incredible power over what we do, how kids feel, and the way schools look.

      It’s a disaster all the way around — and I’m not sure how we fix it!

      I miss connecting with you, by the way! I hope you are well and happy — and that we cross paths this year.

      Rock right on,

  2. Sarah Garr

    Resonates on so many levels. First, I was that kid. One of my most vivid memories of elementary school was the floors- head down, I felt a pervasive sense of shame, of failure for “not measuring up”. That feeling never completely left me. Now an administrator in a highly academic high school, I see the enormous pressure that students are under to “achieve”. For many, their grades define them. If they fail, they are a “failure”. If they get straight A’s, they are a “success”. They are struggling to balance the expectations of parents, post secondary institutions and society. Unbelievable pressure. I haven’t discovered the magic “answer” at this point, but I’m hoping to start to shift that mindset. A student’s self worth should not be defined by a test score.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Oh Sarah,

      SUCH a powerful comment — and a powerful reflection on the impact that grades have had on our learners. I think we all have had similar thoughts and experiences. Now, the trick is finding a way to break that cycle of dysfunction.

      One of the thoughts rolling through my mind lately has been that earning As isn’t a cause for celebration for “successful” students. It’s a relief. They aren’t jazzed by being “successful.” They are just thankful that they can live up to the “standards” that other people have set for themselves.

      Wouldn’t it be cool if kids were comfortable with the notion that they can be successful and unsuccessful all at the same time? That we all achieve and have room for growth and that’s OK?

      I think the only way we get to that point is by being systematic and transparent in our efforts to give kids chances to track their successes and struggles in safe, open ways. Every kid should maintain “Not Yet / You Bet” lists that document what they have mastered and what they are still working on. Simple action with powerful results.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. They are great.

      Rock on,

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