The right questions to ask

Over the last 20 years at Collegewise, I’ve watched thousands of teenagers progress through our programs. I’ve observed nearly 200 colleagues who made their mark working here. I can look back on my own career development and that of my friends and family. I’ve read and thought about education, the point of both high school and college, and the ingredients that seem to be so important to finding success and fulfillment as an adult. And it’s difficult to ignore a reality that plays out in all those scenarios, one that should be liberating but will actually make many people, especially some parents, uncomfortable.

In the grand scheme of what will become a student’s life, high school grades (and even more so, test scores) just don’t matter.

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, so let me do a few preemptive takedowns. Education is everything. We can’t possibly invest enough in schools. Teachers deserve so much more than they’re getting and earning for choosing such a laudable career (I was raised by one of the best public high school English teachers in America whose former students still talk about how she changed their lives). A student who’s engaged in learning and preparing for their future should be applauded and encouraged. Curiosity, effort, work ethic—all of it matters. And kids coming from under-resourced backgrounds who seek upward mobility for themselves and their families need every advantage to get there. We need to help them engage, not send a message that could be interpreted as, “School doesn’t matter.” I have two kids of my own, ages two and four, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to encourage them to make the most of those 6-7 hours a day when they’re on campus between kindergarten and high school.

But I just don’t think the grades on the transcript encapsulate a student’s skills, potential, or likelihood of finding happiness and fulfillment as adults.

Training kids to place a premium on getting the right answer produces students who are more likely to ask, “Will this be on the test?” than they will the real-world questions, the kind without correct answers that can easily be found on the internet. If you’re convinced that getting accepted to an Ivy League school is the key to your success in life, then grades matter a lot. But as I’ve written before, you can’t earn straight A’s in life.

Seth Godin’s recent podcast episode explores this idea in more detail by examining some of these real-world challenges that don’t have one correct answer, like running for office, designing a garbage can to meet the complex needs of New York City sanitation, and understanding how to get along at work when the rules at work keep changing. And he asks an important question: How do we help our kids understand what it means to address challenges that don’t have a right answer? Godin offers two suggestions:

1. Begin with this: you won’t get in trouble for getting it wrong, because nobody knows what “right” means. We’ve got to get past the idea that you can get an “A” on this.

2. Instead of pushing kids to find the right answers, we need to push kids to ask the right questions.

How do you execute it in practice? How do you balance the dueling realities of an education system that places so much weight on grades with a future that will be built based on so many other factors? How do we know if parents or students are doing it right?

Godin doesn’t answer that because there’s no right answer. But those are the right questions to ask.