The Grades That Shake Things Up

I attended the year-end open house at our daughters’ school last week, an attempt at rolling up 180 days of learnings into a 30 minute review.  It’s akin to the end of year performance review at work – except that the reviewers – parents – rarely have ‘constructive’ feedback to share, with virtually all oohing and aahing over the papier mache creatures, self-portraits and non-fiction writing samples.  Note to self that we may need to review the difference between fiction and non at home, since one of my daughters’ non-fiction writing samples focused on sledding in the Bay Area.

At one of the stops throughout the classroom tour, my daughter showed me the ‘pin’ chart.  This is a piece of poster board with 5 different sections, along with one clothespin for each student.  Each day, I knew from hearing about the pin board throughout the year, the entire class starts out in the middle section of the board – and when they do ‘good things’ during the course of the day – listening, being quiet at appointed times, following directions, cleaning up proactively – their pin can be moved up one section to the ‘good choices’ category.  Conversely, not listening, talking during class and the like moves their pin down a notch.  2 moves up puts them in the ‘super student’ category – top of the heap, best of the best in classroom behaviors.

I noticed that while her class is roughly 60% boys, the majority of the pins at the top of the board were girls.  This struck me since I’d recently attended a leadership event that highlighted the continued – and stubborn – gender discrepancy between senior leaders.  While clearly a microcosm of only one elementary school classroom, it was a reminder to me of the very real difference between what we teach early on about success in the classroom and its parallel in the work world.  Then later that week I came across this piece: Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows.  The premise here is that valedictorians are rarely the ones who go on to change the world, or to “the very top of adult achievement arenas”.  That’s not to say that they’re not successful – the data here shows that they are.  But this sums up the point nicely: “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries…they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”  Why?  Because students who are at the top of their class have typically learned to do what they’re told and follow the rules.

And as I thought back to the companies I’d worked for – some startup, some multinational, all had at least one thing in common: they all prided themselves in recruiting students at the top of their class from the most highly ranked schools.  And at some point, they all struggled with innovation.  Each tinkered with rewarding risk taking – but these efforts largely failed when the first significant failure cost people future promotions.  Was that stated outright?  Of course not but the patterns were clear enough – especially to those predisposed to following the rules.

So what’s the solution?  It strikes me as unlikely that outside the most progressive of schools (and those with very small class sizes) teachers will begin encouraging their charges to push the limits, question authority, and be the contrarians.  Being a teacher is tough enough as it is.  As parents we have some latitude to build this muscle in our kids.  And as leaders and managers hiring those newly entering the work world, it’s a reminder that top grades may not be the best proxy for success, and that in our rapidly changing world that seems to be in growing need of being shaken up, an over-reliance on school success may limit what we enable to be possible within our own organizations.


  1. Once again, another brilliant leadership message. Thank you for highlighting the truth about A students vs. C students….. There is great value from not always doing what you’re told to do. Big risks = big rewards. Little risks = little rewards. No risks = no rewards.

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