Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On not falling over

Once, when I was on a skiing holiday with a friend, we got to talking about our week so far. I said that I was glad I hadn't fallen over yet. My friend responded "If you haven't fallen over, it means you're not trying hard enough". I was surprised by this. I'd just done the hardest run in the resort that day. To my mind, not falling over meant, simply, that I was good at skiing.
I have a feeling similar to this every time people discuss grades at school and university, and, more specifically, the importance of failure as a learning tool. I don't doubt that recovering from failure shows determination (though when we praise those who overcome failure, we should be careful of survivor bias). And I don't doubt that evaluating someone solely based on grades, without looking at grade progression, background, research experience and so on is foolish. But the description of straight A students, therefore of me, that tends to accompany these debates, sticks in my craw somewhat. Because, like my friend's assessment of my skiing ability, the fact that I'm good at what I do is taken as prima facie evidence that it's all effortless and, somehow, a scam.
Being a straight A student is not effortless. It takes work. In my case, it took discipline, a lot of it. Furthermore, the idea that just because the grades don't show a progression, there is no wrestling with concepts, ideas, no struggles, is erroneous. Those things happen. It's just that, for some reason, with the straight A student, the breakthrough happens before the test, so there is never any evidence of it. The illusion of effortlessness is just that: the straight A student is the swan, gliding gracefully across the mirror like lake, legs paddling furiously underneath.
The other idea that attaches to straight A students, which characterizes me even less, is that somehow, we do not learn the material, we merely learn to take tests. I won't deny that good grades can act as a motivator (and, more tellingly, that bad grades act as a discouragement). But the relationship is more subtle. For me in particular, the good grades worked in combination with my genuine interest in the subjects to create a virtuous circle, one where the external rewards of effort combined with the internal drive of interest to make working for school fun. Yes, fun. As much as exams stressed me, there were times when being given 3 hours to write essays on topics I loved (looking at you general paper from part II zoology) was actually almost a pleasure. 
There are limitations to being a straight A student. Most obviously with me, the fact that I started out good and became excellent in most academic subjects meant that it took me a long time to learn how to deal with those things I wasn't good at from the start (sports comes to mind, but also the violin).  But that doesn't mean that I wasn't good at the things I was good at. It just means that I didn't devote much energy to things I wasn't good at. Then again, many not straight A students do this too (we all do, in fact). The other issue is that straight A students have trouble differentiating adequate performance from actually bad performance. It also took me a long time to recognise that, when hard work yields a reward (a good grade), it is easier to do then when it doesn't. I have immense respect for the C and B students of this world who work their arses off consistently, despite never seeing a consistent A.
As for the question of failure, I have mixed feelings on this. I never failed academically by any measure. Perhaps my first true failure was failing to secure employment straight after my PhD. I overcame that failure, but I'm not sure what I learnt from it. That I was tenacious? I think I learnt that from teaching myself linear algebra in grad school just as much. And besides, my failure would have been impossible to overcome without the successes that came before it. When we focus on failure, we deny people the joy of success that comes from practiced skill.
When we overly lionise the educational importance of failure, and fail to recognise the effort that goes into sustained success, we undermine a lot of hard work. And when we suggest that all straight A students are intellectual frauds, we deny them the joy of their achievement, and the value of their work. These messages reach straight A students early: I think I was nine or ten when my teachers first started telling me to expect to start failing at some point, some as a warning, others, somewhat more gleefully. No one likes a tall poppy. I can understand teachers not focusing on straight A students. I have more trouble with teachers undermining them. It happens more often than you might think.
It is possible to critique the narrowness of our systems of evaluation, and the flaws inherent in our educational systems, without casting aspersions on the efforts and joys of those individuals who do well in them. There is pleasure in racing down skillfully from mountaintop to village, carving into the snow with practiced ease knowing that this, you are good at.