When we Put the Focus on Grades—Are We Missing the Mark?

When I think back on my own fond memories from early elementary school, I am flooded with thoughts of show and tell, hatching and raising baby chicks, four-square on the playground, and pretend cooking in my kindergarten classroom’s Playskool kitchen. The focus for my learning, as far as I can recall from those early days in the classroom, circled around creativity, imaginative play, relationship building, and simply grasping what it means to learn.

In retrospect, while I was having all of this “fun” in kindergarten, I was simultaneously learning and developing strong foundations under the guise of games and playtime. I learned what it meant to take turns, share, listen to a peer’s story, take responsibility, and show respect. Can these vital life skills be evaluated on a standard grading scale? No. Do I remember the exact process for incubating chicks? No, but perhaps more importantly, I remember that project as my first opportunity to take care of something.

With these thoughts in mind, I find myself questioning the shift in the paradigm. Kindergarteners today are not living the same experiences that I so fondly remember. In place of show and tell and imaginative play are math packets, reading assessments, and homework folders. Instead of following the “Golden Rule,” we are emphasizing the importance of grades, scores, and rankings—even at the elementary level.

Similarly, the role of the kindergarten parent has changed, as well.

I used to love when my mom would come to the elementary school for lunch. Parents would line up in the cafeteria with their kids, select their choice of milk and other lunch options, and then enjoy lunch with their kids.  After lunch, we’d take our moms and dads out to recess and play a game of kickball together. Today’s parents are not afforded those special memories as frequently. Instead, kindergarten parents are the homework checkers, schedule coordinators, and grade mediators. Report cards and test scores replace the crayon portraits on the fridge. What is the end goal for this shift towards a more rigorous class of five-year-olds? At what point are we missing the point of early learning?

A common concern is that we are now putting the cart before the horse.

If a six-year-old knows how to use an array to explain multiplication, but is unable to carry on a polite conversation with a new peer, we have a problem on our hands. We should not discount the importance of specific core skills, but I would like to think that kindergarten is still a place where children must learn how to get along with others in the world.

Before a child learns the parts of speech, we should prepare them to speak to a lonely student during recess.

As an English teacher, I see the importance of differentiating adjectives from adverbs. However, befriending a lonely peer or simply carrying on a polite conversation with a new friend is a skill that will benefit a young person just as readily, if not more. At home, discuss the purpose of extending a cordial “hello” to someone that might be sitting alone at the lunch table. Talk about how it would feel if you were new to a place and had no one with whom to eat. Encourage your child to see things from another student’s perspective, as these conversations build empathy and social awareness.

Before children learn how to divide, we should focus on teaching them how to divvy up a group task.

Teach them that to divide and conquer means that everyone must bring something to the table for the good of the group. Explain how compromise is a key concept when collaborating with others. Children need to recognize that other people’s ideas may be better than their own—and that this is a good thing for the group. Teach children that another person’s success does nothing to take away from their own triumphs—that we need to celebrate others and acknowledge hard work when we see it.

Before we ask children to examine and evaluate a character’s choices, we need to teach them how to assess their own decisions.

We can go even further and discuss how our decisions can greatly affect others. It is okay to make mistakes; we learn from these “bad” decisions. But the takeaway is to use those prior experiences to make better choices in the future.

Before we prompt students to measure a liquid versus a solid, we should show them how to measure their own effort and motivation.

Children need practice when it comes to self-reflection—and the early elementary years provide those opportunities. Ask your children if they did their best today—how do they know? Would they say that they gave their best effort? What was the hardest or most discouraging thing that they practiced today? What made the task difficult and how can you use that information moving forward?

Whether we choose to have these conversations with children explicitly, or to model the processes, practices, and behaviors, one thing is certain—the knowledge that comes from learning how to cooperate, interact with, and support others is knowledge that will prove to be beneficial in any setting in the future.

What is the tradeoff if a straight A kindergarten student is incapable of navigating the social-emotional realm that is academia? Kindness, creativity, self-reflection and gratitude, while they cannot be graded or assessed, are arguably just as important as the academic skills we are now pushing to the forefront. Therefore, it is worth the consideration and conversation.


Feature image courtesy of Unsplash, Scott Webb.

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