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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What do I need to do to get an A?

“What do I need to do to get an A?” asks one of my students in an honors math course.

I wish I had a magic recipe. I can say with reasonable confidence that it’s possible to get a B by studying hard, by studying smart, by working hard to understand concepts, by getting enough practice in math skills. But an A? Every student sees some classmates getting A’s by some mysterious method, in some cases working very hard and in other cases magically earning the A with seemingly little effort. Surely there must be a secret recipe that the teacher isn’t revealing.

Of course there isn’t such a recipe. Think of some non-academic endeavors. What can you do to gain a place on the varsity basketball team or the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra? Sure, working hard is important and necessary (think of the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: “practice, practice, practice”), but unfortunately it’s not sufficient. There’s no way that I’m going to be a top-ranked musician or a top-ranked athlete, no matter how hard I try. And yet, as a teacher, I definitely don’t want to be the bearer of discouraging news. I want my students to work hard, to do their best. But their best might or might not match their hopes. There’s nothing wrong with a B in an honors math course at Weston High School — in fact, I have a couple of students who work very hard and are delighted when they achieve B’s. But, in Lake Wobegon and similar communities, nothing less than an A will do.

So here’s the dilemma: how do I motivate students to achieve their personal best — which, after all, is the aim in music and athletics and other endeavors — without telling them that their personal best might not be good enough? I know how to help students get B’s, but after 34 years of teaching I don’t know how to help them get A’s, at least in honors courses. Some do, most don’t, but it’s not clear what effect I can have on the outcome. I can help a willing, able, and motivated student get an A in a college-prep course, but such a student might well try his or her best and only get a B in an honors course. As I say, there’s nothing wrong with that, but in today’s world of competitive parents and even more competitive college admissions, my point of view won’t be compelling. This is discouraging. The last thing I would do is say ahead of time that any given student is incapable of earning an A. And yet, at some point, one is forced to admit that a particular student is trying as hard as any reasonable person could expect and is earning a B. I don’t know what to say, except to repeat that there’s nothing wrong with that.

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