Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A is for Accomplishment

I'm going to borrow an idea from my current favorite blogger, the formidably talented Mary Ann Reilly here, which she borrowed from someplace else. The idea is to put together a series of posts each of which is tagged to a letter of the alphabet, starting with A and working from there. I may or may not be able to find the time to keep it up, but I'm going play with it and either just take longer than a month or perhaps just do the letters for the days I am able to write, starting with A on April 3. I'm going to impose an additional constraint on myself, which is to make most if not all of the posts related to teaching and learning.

Five years ago February I attended the NAIS conference in New York City. One of the sessions was a dual presentation featuring Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik. I went because I wanted to hear Gladwell, but walked away more impressed with Gopnik, who has since become one of my favorite writers. His work is featured regularly in The New Yorker.

In Gopnik's very personal and very impassioned talk, he talked about his daughter's experience in school and more generally about the meta-messages that schools send about what's important. (I'm going to have to paraphrase his argument here, and badly, at least compared to him. All of the illustrations I offer below are my own. But his basic point has stuck with me. (What Gladwell had to say that day, I can't recall.))

Gopnik drew a distinction between "achievement" and "accomplishment." The former, he argued, is what schools celebrate and what students are taught, overtly or covertly, to value. It is etymologically related to the word "chief," from the French a chief venir, to come to a head. It's about being on top, about winning, about public praise. School administrators often take public notice of the achievements of the senior class at graduation. An achievement is the sort of thing likely to be showcased in a resume. But achievement comes with a high price tag. It's often the result of competition. It's exclusive.

It's an achievement to win the state title in, say, basketball. But it's not generally understood to be an achievement to come in third. It's an achievement to be valedictorian, but there can be only one valedictorian. It's an achievement to score high on a test, but there is no inherent value in the test itself before or after it has been scored. In many ways the focus on achievement narrows our children's sense of what is important, overemphasizes competition, and leaves those who are not chosen for recognition with the sense that they have failed. What has, over the years, been the epithet of choice to express disdain? "Loser."

Accomplishment, on the other hand, is simply the visible manifestation of what you have been able to do. The word "accomplishment" is etymologically related to the word "complete." It's an accomplishment to learn a foreign language, to teach yourself to play the guitar, to draw a picture that satisfies you, perhaps, if you are a reluctant reader, to finish a book. It might even be an accomplishment to make it through the week without breaking down and weeping. Accomplishment is about setting your own goals and then going after them. It suggests that you have finished what you started. Its context is individual in pursuit of his/her own goals, not the individual in pursuit of public recognition.

One of the most influential voices in education today is that of Carol Dweck, who argues against what she calls a "fixed mindset" in favor of a "growth mindset." She cites studies that show that children who are praised for being smart wind up, when faced with new challenges, being risk-averse, preferring not to undertake tasks which might involve failure, because smart people aren't supposed to fail. Whereas children praised for their hard work, when faced with a challenge, roll up their sleeves and dig in, because "hard workers" know from experience that they persevere they'll be able to work their way through the challenge.

It seems to me that "achievement" is a fixed-mindset word. It suggests a goal arrived at, rather than worked for. "Accomplishment" feels more to me like a growth-mindset word. Gopnik suggests that our children, and our students, would be better off if we made it a point to talk with them about what they have accomplished rather than what they have achieved. Makes sense to me.

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