Underachievement: the label that keeps on taking

Do you see this girl? She’s a budding underachiever. How can I tell? It’s the look on her face and the boring paper in front of her. How many times can you color this thing blue and that thing red?

Although I love words (oh, how I love words!), I’m not a semanticist. I don’t care if you call them bright or gifted or talented or smart. I don’t care if you call it tomato or to-mahto. But there is one label I loathe: underachiever. Let me explain.

We have to recognize that by naming something underachievement, we create a paradigm that we expect kids to buy into in a big, fat, hairy way. We have to convince them that our system of exchange – grades for work – is valuable, tenable, and, in fact, the epitome of success. It is possible that so-called underachievers are not failing the system, but rather rejecting it.

If my only motivation for effort is my fear of failure in an existing system, only three choices exist.

  1. I can labor at work I find ridiculous, demeaning, uninteresting, redundant, and/or outside my range of interest in order to please teachers and parents.
  2. I can buy into the system and create little mind games to make the work palatable through a complex system of self-reward/flagellation.
  3. I can reject the system and refuse to participate in it, thereby inviting the label “underachiever.”

The truth is that we don’t even really know what underachievement is. It’s like obscenity – I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. But what if I don’t agree with what you think you see?

What if my potential for achievement is high, but I have no interest in school achievement?

Let us compare for a moment a child who is intellectually gifted with a child who has an innate talent for weaving thread through his teeth without his fingers. No one would care if the second child declined to perform his talent. In fact, the child’s parents would likely prefer that he did not. On the other hand, if the high potential child declines to earn good grades, there is likely to be strong parental reaction.

Why is this? It is because our society values academic achievement and recognizes it as essentially the sole indicator and measure of intellectual vitality.

But have you seen school work lately? I mean, really.

This is more than boredom. And I would also disagree with people who explain it away with ADD. You know what, it’s not just boredom, and it’s not just forgetting to turn in homework.

It’s a problem that reflects a greater issue – the problem of motivation, what Daniel Pink so eloquently wrote about in his book Drive and Alfie Kohn vilified our whole educational system over in Punished by Rewards.

We start when they’re three years old giving stickers for behavior we call “good,” which is code for “conforming.” So by kindergarten, they are like trained seals who think that being “good” for a day is worth a sticker, or staying on “green,” or a happy face in the take-home folder, or a smile from the teacher.

One problem comes when a child doesn’t think the reward equals the effort. What if I find it vastly more satisfying to hit little Kenny than to get a sticker, even a scratch-n-sniff? What if I don’t like my teacher, so I don’t care whether he smiles at me or not? In fact, I get distinct pleasure from making him frown?

You are all getting an uncomfortable glimpse into my own psyche, here, actually.

We have to re-examine what we expect kids to be motivated by, and then we have to let them share what motivates them. It cannot be purely to please us, because that will fade completely when they are teens and the exact opposite dynamic rears its ugly head. They must decide to learn to please themselves. They must find the deep internal well that can only be filled with knowledge, and they must find its water sweet to the taste. We can lead a brain to water, but we cannot make it think.

The bottom line? We cannot tease apart school success from an artificial system of value we’ve imposed.

Because of this, we have to find for ourselves what is the true value of education (hint: it’s not grades), and we need to explore it with kids, not throw it at them or grind them under its foot.

Next post: what role does perfectionism play in underachievement?

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