- Dan Connors
B students can save the world
"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." Albert Einstein
" I was too worried about grades and I should have been more worried about learning." MIchelle Obama
For most of us who experienced the K-12 educational system, grades defined us early in life, and that most certainly carried over into adulthood. Through subject after subject, we eventually settled into a pattern of grades, and our teachers, parents and friends reinforced our identity as "A" students, "B" students, "C" students or failures. Schools are institutions of learning, certainly, but they also have other agendas that can get in the way of true learning and discovery.
Grades serve as an external motivator, that semester-end benchmark that can make us or break us. They keep most students involved in the process, but the external motivation also leads to a cynical race to exploit the system and get advantages over other students in the competition for better futures. What happens to us when that external motivation that a teacher or professor offers goes away at graduation? What motivates us then?
The sad fact is that for many of us, we leap from obsession with grades and status to a new obsession with money and status. The easy classification system that education provides us morphs into a new system where job title and salary are supposed to reflect who we are as a person. In unquestioningly accepting this transition, we are limiting ourselves and missing out on so much more that life has to offer.
As a student, I never made straight A's. Being fairly intelligent, I was able to pull off A's, B's and rare C's to keep my average respectable. While envying straight A students, I also kind of felt for them, because the intense pressures to be perfect must be hard to deal with in life. If someone takes a straight A personality into adulthood, two dangerous things can happen:
1- They can develop the attitude that they are better than everybody else, making them insufferable assholes with little empathy or understanding for those who don't measure up to their standards.
2- They can avoid risks or the unknown, because any failures or sub-par results are a threat to their very identity. This keeps them in a safe space where they always have status but rarely risk failure or humiliation. Their keen intelligence can go to waste if it isn't challenged regularly.
The opposite problem happens with "C" and below students. Relegated to the bottom of the educational hierarchy, they are tempted to give up, because no matter how hard they try, they feel like it will never matter. Some "C" students turn to athletics, where they can excel and find meaning, but for most of them becoming a professional athlete is out of reach. That leads to the challenges of young adulthood to find meaning without good grades, which is ten times harder than for those at the top. Some end up as single mothers, some as drug addicts or in jail, and the lucky ones find an adult mentor that can steer them into fields where school grades don't matter as much.
That brings me to "B" students and how they can save the world. As a B student myself, I can be relieved that the curse of perfectionism doesn't apply to me. I feel free to make mistakes and learn from them. We are here to learn. B students exist in the happy medium between effort to master topics and humility to know nothing can ever be 100% mastered. Getting a "B" grade means that for the most part someone has absorbed what needed to be learned, but there is room for improvement. This brings me to the three powers of "B" students.
1- They have to learn time and effort management- to know what the important things are and how to learn them while not obsessing over every detail.
2- They have the humility to know that they can never know everything. This provokes a healthy respect for the unknown, and a resilience to bounce back when faced with unforeseen failures.
3- "B" students live in the sweet spot where learning is valued, intrinsic, and rewarded. They can be curious about the world around them and want to learn more, while not fearing a loss of status if things don't turn out perfectly.
Knowledge is a spectrum. Humanity certainly knows more now than in any time in history. There is more knowledge than any one person can possibly accommodate. And the more we know, the more we expose unknowns that we were previously unaware of. The Dunning-Kruger effect causes problems when a little bit of knowledge and mastery causes overconfidence and complacency, (known as Mount Stupid) and is later exposed as a flawed when new facts come to light. Thinking like a "B" student keeps us from falling for that trap by balancing learning and the unknown with a healthy respect for both.
Should we get rid of grades? Some think they do more harm than good. Montessori schools have proven that intrinsic love of learning can take students much further than external letter grade rewards. Of the 90,000 public schools in the US, about 400 use the Montessori method. The combination of government emphasis on test scores and parent's preference for letter grades means that the GPA system isn't going anywhere any time soon.
How many times, as an adult, has anybody asked you about your grades in school? Ever? It almost never comes up anymore. That label that meant so much to us in our developing years quickly fades in importance and other things take its place. But deep in the back of our mind we still recall the exam scores that tag us as brilliant or stupid or whatever for life.
The good news now is that as adults we get to choose what to focus on. We can change our entire identity with the right story and goal. If you previously thought of yourself as an "A", "B", "C" or other student- toss those assumptions out the window and start a new identity. We all have unique talents, and we all are capable of learning to be even better. Never forget that. Perhaps "B" student isn't the proper label for the type of human I'm proposing. "B" signifies that you are somehow above one station and below another. This isn't exactly true. Lifelong learner is more appropriate.
Every one of us fits differently in the spectrum. Some of us are "A" in one area and "D" in another. We have so much that we can teach each other and learn from each other. Don't let the labels get in the way. Become a lifelong learner and be amazed at the progress that you see as your brain, eyes, and heart make as you travel up and down this amazing and incomprehensible spectrum.