If school comes easy, find a bigger challenge


Near the end of the school year, one of my freshmen (I’ll call her Meg) complained to me about our school’s grading system.

“Why does homework have to be 20% of my grade? If I can get As on tests without doing assignments, why does homework count against me?”

We had a little post-AP test downtime that day, so I told Meg my opinion. It’s great that you learn everything so easily without practice, I said, but what happens when you don’t?

She looked puzzled, so I explained that nearly everyone hits a wall eventually. It might not be until college, or grad school, or a job, but she will probably run into something she can’t just master without effort. Then what?

Many bright students assume they will go on learning easily forever, and most are wrong — one reason more than half of our “gifted” students never graduate from college. When they finally do encounter a challenge, they don’t know how to overcome it, and they give up.

That’s why learning how to learn – the study habits and routines that average students have to master to survive high school – is important. That’s why we do want students to take notes, write summaries, formulate questions – and we count it as part of their grade.

Meg seemed to accept that explanation, even if she didn’t like it, but I wasn’t done.

“Why are you taking classes you can ace without trying?” I asked her. “Why don’t you challenge yourself more? That’s the real question.”

She shrugged her shoulders. She was taking a pretty rigorous schedule, including AP Macro, so she was good. She was already on the path toward four-year college. It didn’t occur to her that she could be doing more.

Unfortunately, that’s typical. Most kids, even bright ones, prefer classes that they can ace without much effort. Better to get all As (and complain about pointless homework) than try something that really stretches you. How great it is to feel smart every day?

The older you get without the challenge, though, the scarier it becomes, and the more anxiety your first B or C (or D or F) will provoke.

If AP Macro is too easy for Meg, then maybe she should be taking econometrics or financial modeling on Coursera or EdX. If that’s not what interests her, she could find a class on Shakespeare or constitutional law. Or she could teach herself another language and find an online community of native speakers.

When I told her this, she looked at me like I was crazy. Who does that? A few days later, though, she came back and asked me for suggestions. Where could she find something challenging to do during the summer? Did I know of any websites?

I do, and I hope she follows up on them. I don’t want to see students overloading themselves or burning themselves out – we see plenty of that, too — but I wish we could get every student to push themselves in just one area. Especially students like Meg, who have coasted for a long time.

You learn something important from deeply struggling with a math problem or writing prompt or coding challenge or French translation, and it’s something you can’t learn from effortlessly acing tests and looking “school smart.”

We can help — and we need to — by talking to kids more about the value of overcoming a challenge and less about the value of an A on a high school transcript.

Next year, I think that will be the first question I ask any student who wants a college recommendation letter from me: What have you done that really challenged you? When have you hit a wall you didn’t think you could overcome?

If they haven’t, then it’s time to find one.