Sunday, April 6, 2008

Why left-brainers depend more than others on high grades

You're a shy, introverted, and/or socially awkward child. You're also very analytical, excelling in math, science, foreign language, and expository writing. You are, in other words, a classic left-brainer. And so, as a grade school student, where are you going to shine?

Not in the schoolyard, where you shy away from peers or are teased by them.

Not in the classroom, where you're intimidated by discussions or have trouble following them and figuring out when to join in.

Not in your school-based extracurriculars, where leadership roles don't suit you, and many of which are uncomfortably social.

Rather, above all else, it's grades. More than for most of your classmates, your self-worth depends on grades that, as grades once did, reflect the extent of your strong analytical, mathematical, scientific, and linguistic skills.

Later on, there are your prospects for admission to colleges that challenge and nurture these skills. Increasingly, as Malcolm Gladwell observes in a recent New Yorker article, competitive colleges are placing less weight on SAT scores and more on school-based extracurriculars and leadership roles. Increasingly, they are shying away from those who seem shy or socially awkward when interviewed. 

In such a climate, your high grades are your trump card.

But, as I've explored in earlier posts (one, two, three), grade schools are increasingly reluctant to deal this hand, reserving top grades for the gregarious enthusiasts of today's right-brain classrooms.


PaulaV said...

My superintendent has read Daniel H. Pink's "A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will rule the future".

Have you read it? I scanned the reviews on Amazon and could plainly see this ideology had filtered into my sons' elementary school. Projects and drawings litter the hallways.

Your expertise in art is judged far more than your knowledge in a particularly subject. I had one parent tell me that it was important for kids to get along in groups because the workforce needed people who could work on a team. My response to that was there was only one performance evaluation that decided if you received a raise or not. While working on a team has its merits, it is not the end all, be all in the "real" world.

lefty said...

Very interesting... Superintendents now reading "A Whole New Mind"!

I've read Pink's book, and it's too bad it's having this kind of influence on our schools. In fact, Pink is careful to point out that he's promoting the need for right-brain skills IN ADDITION to left-brain ones. But, just as with Multiple Intelligences, our schools are happy to ditch the analytical for everything nonacademic.

My favorite claim by education experts is that mathematicians work in groups. The mathematicians I know would scoff at this: yes, they collaborate, but most of their actual work is solitary.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

I have noticed that as the kids progress higher in school, class grades are based less and less on non-objective ratings (group participation etc.) and more and more on test scores and paper grades. While the papers might admittedly still reflect some bias, the quiz and test scores don't. I know it is frustrating, but don't worry about your grade schoolers grades...they are almost meaningless in the long run.

lefty said... long as the tests + quizzes include analytically challenging questions and (in math) don't insist that the child explain his or her answer in words.

..and as long as mediocre grades in elementary school don't compromise your child's options for admission to decent middle schools and high schools (esp in cities where such decent options are few and far between).

Catherine Johnson said...

You know - I don't think you have anything to worry about.

Yes, the Ivies have more 800-scoring kids than they can shake a stick at but, at the same time, high-achieving math/science students are few and far between.

I'll try to dig up my WSJ article saying that the kids who are really getting creamed in admissions to elite schools are kids who are good in the humanities.

Those kids are suffering from grade deflation & compression (in affluent schools) and they're a dime a dozen, comparatively speaking.

The WSJ article suggested that expensive suburban schools may be no help at all to most strong students (i.e. strong students whose strengths don't lie in math).

I don't remotely mean to engage in "competitive misery"!!

I'll track down that article.

Catherine Johnson said...

The whole leadership thing is a nightmare, period.

How many kids are "leaders"?

Our own kid is completely out of the running if that's going to be the criterion -- and he's a verbal/history/humanities type.

His joke with Ed is that when he gets to high school he's going to form a "Leadership Club." (Apparently, founding a club is a BIG WAY a kid can "demonstrate leadership" -- or so the various media reports, etc., say.)

C. is going to found a Leadership Club, and everyone will get to be Leader for one month at a time, on rotation.

I'm sure that will knock them dead in the Ivies.

Catherine Johnson said...

The mathematicians I know would scoff at this: yes, they collaborate, but most of their actual work is solitary.

True of writing collaborations, too. I've been the 2nd author on my last 3 books, and I spend vast amounts of time working on my own, as did both of the lead authors.

The ability to collaborate on a project as complex and demanding as a book depends upon major working-alone skills.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have noticed that as the kids progress higher in school, class grades are based less and less on non-objective ratings (group participation etc.) and more and more on test scores and paper grades.

Unfortunately, that's not what we've seen.

We've seen kids who are "humanities" kids enjoying math more than what they excel in almost entirely because math can be objectively graded & they can get a sense of completion & success.

Once you start bringing in Lucy-Calkins-style writer workshops and "process writing" you pretty quickly kill off any joy in writing a middle schooler may have been experiencing.

KathyIggy said...

This ideology is also in the corporate world. I was selected for a Leadership Development Program at work. "Good leaders," as most of the literature today states, are big on "affiliating" and "encouraging" and the articles all downplay technical knowledge, which my position (attorney) requires. They are full of anecdotes of how all these technically-sound people failed miserably at "leading." So I could know nothing and "lead" my team in the wrong direction because of lack of technical expertise. "Left Brain" perfectionism and conventional approaches are seen as something not positive. So now I have to deal with this stuff at my kids' school and at work too!

lefty said...

Fascinating comments! Thanks for all of them!

Catherine--I'd love to see the WSJ article on top colleges favoring math and science kids (what do they do with ones that went through fuzzy math + science programs?). My impression was a bias in college admissions, instead, towards "leadership" skills (Malcolm Gladwell had a New Yorker article on this a couple of years ago.

"Competitive misery"-- I love that term!

And your son's leadership club. I'll have to get my son to start one as well.

lefty said...

catherine--How interesting that the smart humanities kids prefer the math and science for the objective grading. At least the grading there still is objective. It doesn't seem to be so in our elementary school math and science classes, but I'm not sure what awaits in high school.

So in your schools the "writing workshop" model persists through high school? Yuck.

lefty said...

catherine--thanks for your observations about collaborative writing. I've not done much of this myself (though what little I have done is consistent with your experiences); I'll cite you next time a teacher tries to justify group work for writing projects.

lefty said...

kathy--thanks for your observations about the corporate world. I wonder how many of our cooperate mishaps are thanks to our leadership priorities?

Interesting, too, to hear that technical expertise can actually count against you!