How to Give An “A”

“If we all did the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” These words by Thomas Edison sparked a discussion by Benjamin Zander entitled, “How to Give an A.” He delivered the talk at a conference organized by the National College of School Leadership

Zander is a music director at the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and has two passions in life: classical music, and encouraging students to enter the mindset of possibility. He opens up his talk by emphasizing a challenge every student faces: the art of comparison. Through Zander’s many years of teaching, he has noticed the trend every year, and explains that students have that voice inside their head saying, “I hope I can do at least as well as him in the class. I know I’ll never do as well as her. I know I’m going to get a better grade than him.”

Far too often, education is looked at as a form of competition. Should it be? Who can say that a student ranked 20th in the class will have a less successful life post-graduation than a student ranked 5th in their class? There is no guarantee that the valedictorian will go on to fame and fortune. Success is based on much more than your class ranking and grades.

The Unhealthy Habit of Comparison

Zander, in an effort to eliminate the unhealthy habit of students comparing themselves to each other’s academic achievements, he tells everyone on the first day of class,, “You are an A. Go ahead and give yourself an A. That is the grade you will all receive at the end of the course!”

After the students’ reactions calm down, Zander gives them their first assignment, which is due the next day. They are to write a letter to him, dated the last day of the semester, beginning with, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…” and they are to tell him what they did to deserve that grade.

Since every student begins the course with an A, there is no need for them to compare themselves to one another; they are all starting out on equal footing. Better yet, the students actually control their grade, as they detail in their letter how they were able to maintain such an outstanding grade for the entirety of the course. If the students receive a lower grade, they can then reference the letter they wrote to see where they got off track.

How Fascinating!

Zander also indicates that students have a preconceived notion that achieving an A means they have to be perfect. We all know this couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, Zander believes students should be celebrated for making mistakes, as this is an opportunity to grow and learn. When students make a mistake in class, he encourages them to yell, “How fascinating!” This takes the pressure off students trying to be perfect, and instead, focuses their attention on correcting that mistake going forward.

In summary, what Zander is essentially trying to say is that the world of education should not be a place of competition and fear. Yes, finishing with a high class rank and GPA is important, but it’s not the be-all, end-all. A classroom is a place to learn, grow, and engage — it shouldn’t feel like the Hunger Games!

Telling students on the first day of class that they are all A’s is a powerful—and empowering—message. While some students will roll their eyes and brush it off, there’s a strong chance that many students will take that message to heart. No matter their previous academic history, no matter where they are in the class rankings, they are an A. How fascinating, indeed!

To view the discussion by Mr. Zander in-full, watch below:

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