Growing up, thought I was good at the sciences, less good at reading and writing, and lousy at the arts. How did I know? That was what my grades told me in school.
The problem is, for young minds, this labelling is false and harmful.
Art in school is how straight you can draw lines and if you can paint without crossing over the lines. At least, this is what art is until the later years of school. Then, you are taught what art really is, which is communicating a message between the creator and the person experiencing the art. But by the time I was in high school, I had convinced myself that art wasn’t something I was good at or needed to be good at.
I don’t consider myself an artist today, but one closely-related role I do play is a designer. This happened through an education in mechanical engineering, where my focus became on medical devices with additional interests in energy and space exploration. This was around 2008, so not that long ago, but pre-iPad and pre-Kickstarter.
The result was that my design education and journey has been in this era where product success is so intertwined with “soft” design: user experience, human factors, and communicating a message to the user. This part of design engineering is far, far more about art than it is math or physics.
I now find the “art” of design to often be more enjoyable than the “science” of it. But I feel like I’m playing catch-up, I wish I hadn’t been pigeon-holed as “not an artist” when I was far too young for anyone to know what I was going to be.
I think feedback and even ranking systems are good, even for young students in grading. Feedback helps to improve future performance, and comparative ranking by grades gives competition: a reflection of life beyond school.
The problem is that performance in subject X isn’t a good decider if the person will do well at X in the real world. Studing X in school isn’t doing X. School is designed to teach basic skills (arithmetic, writing essays, researching), the ability to learn, and, lastly, content. Performance in school is judged on how well and quickly the student can learn these skills and content, which is different from how well the student can succeed in that field.
Premature judgements are made on this that can have an effect on the student’s career. I have heard a lot of people who’ve picked a particular career because they were good at it in school, or avoided another because they were bad at it. It is unfair for both the student and society that we are doing a poor job of helping people to careers they will enjoy and be good at.
We need to develop a culture in schools and the institutions that surround them that failure is ok. Labelling people who are “good” or “bad” at certain things in school needs to stop, especially for young students. These self-images can remain with students for a long time. Instead, we should try different approaches with young students who are struggling. We shouldn’t let the student or anyone else say they are “good” or “bad” at something before anyone can possibly know.