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How Do We Help Kids Avoid the 'Accomplishment' Trap?

Liz Dwyer

Ellen Huerta realized "external recognition had unfortunately become a primary motivator for me," and walked away from a job at Google. Huerta says "being recognized for what I did became more exciting as the stakes grew higher (honor roll, getting into prep school, getting into Wellesley, getting an award in college, getting a prized internship, getting a job at Google)." But in our schools grades and scores are the key drivers of learning. How do we help kids avoid this 'accomplishment' trap?

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  • Annie Wu

    A beautiful and inspiring piece I wholeheartedly relate to - thank you so much for sharing!

  • Kris Giere

    This is an amazing story of self-discovery and bravery. I admire Elle's choice.

    As for your question, I have been wrestling with this idea since I was a student myself. I can't figure out how to return the emphasis back to the learning and self-discovery that education should focus on. I try to do this in my own classroom, but I still get bombarded by students who want, beg, or demand points for every action so that they can achieve grades that somehow mean more than the moment when they first authentically admitted that they didn't know the answer but were so excited to figure it out that they stayed up all night.

    The popularized phrase "follow the money" is probably most apt here. Grades can turn into scholarship money if they hadn't already been incentivized by dollar amounts from parents and grandparents previously. Students also typically talk about education in the context of the paycheck that it will someday bring them. Accomplishments lead to promotions like the ones of which Elle spoke. Could our consumerism and capitalism be driving this? I don't know, but I do know that the connection is worth looking into.

    • Liz Dwyer

      Yup, I remember spending my entire school experience being so focused on getting an A on a paper or test, and then getting all the accolades and pats on the back that came with that--with having a whole identity as the good student/nerd--and then when I got to college it took me a long time to even figure out what it was that I was good at or wanted to do. There is no such thing as getting an "A" in life. And education is SO framed in terms of a paycheck. When I'd tell folks about wanting to do certain things, the immediate response was, "And how will you make any money doing that?" It's much worse now. Agreed, I absolutely think materialism is driving this.

      • Kris Giere

        If we allow materialism to drive education, we will regret it someday. Education can be a great way to balance out inequity through teaching of empathy and sharing of experiences that may not seem connected in the moment but that will connect us to each other to build stronger communities.

        I am an idealist and this is my world view.

  • Hillary Newman

    Wow, Liz, what an inspirational piece. I give Elle a ton of credit for leaving Google. I can image it's pretty scary to let go of that security, let alone the prestige that comes along with working at a place like Google.

    • Liz Dwyer

      Yup, I kept thinking about all the people who must've told her she's crazy-and you know how folks say, who cares what you're passionate about, find a hobby for your weekend but do what makes you $$. So kudos to her for taking the leap and finding meaning.