The tyranny of measurement
The need to measure and compare our kids is hurting their potential.
Goodhart's Law says when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
Writers in the alternative schooling space point to this law as the reason why test grades fail us as a tool. Once the kids and parents are aiming for the grade, grades are no longer useful. People learn to game the system – and those who are best at gaming it are rewarded at the expense of their genuine interest in learning.
This problem goes way deeper than grades.
We’re obsessed with measuring everything in our kid’s life: how tall is he compared to his peers? How many extracurricular hours does she have? What month did he speak his first word? What college is he going to? Is she gifted or slow? What’s her GPA?
Can you feel the walls closing in?
The problem is not the measurements themselves. It’s the unspoken story that motivates them. Something like, “Is my child good enough?” And, by extension, “Am I a good parent?”
Woof. No wonder anxiety is through the roof.
Don’t fall for the hidden story
We should take a lesson from toddlers and ask “why” until it annoys people.
Behind every SAT, ACT, and LEAP test is a hidden story. We often accept these stories without asking ourselves, “Why?” Sometimes, the story is, “I need to get a good score in AP algebra so I can get into MIT and study physics.” But, often, the real story is, “I don’t want to take this because I’m worried I’m not smart enough, but I’m going to anyway, to hopefully prove that I am.”
Often, the second story leads to extreme measures – like kids secretly taking “focus drugs” or cheating on exams so they don’t feel like they’re falling behind.
Why force kids to measure themselves without knowing the outcome we’re hoping for, except for a high score on the measurement itself?
Measurements are good when you know what goal you’re pursuing (again, the measurement itself isn’t the goal). They’re bad when they are non-specific. Without a clear goal attached to the measurement, kids automatically attach other values to them, like self-worth and social status.
It takes something as complex as a whole human being, and flattens it down to a number. If you have a high number, good kid. Low number, bad kid.
Unless you know exactly what you’re hoping to achieve by measuring your child’s performance, don’t fall into the anxiety trap of doing it just to compare to your neighbor’s kid.
That’s a recipe for anxiety.
The unfortunate unmeasurability of success
The outcome we’re all really hoping for is a good life for our kids.
We secretly hope a high test score will assure us that our kid will be successful and happy forever. Too bad life doesn’t work that way.
No matter how you slice it, if you over-optimize for any single feature of success (happiness, intelligence, knowledge, money, etc), you always accidentally sacrifice something you didn’t consider.
In the case of traditional school, we accidentally sacrificed our kids’ curiosity, play, and happiness by over-optimizing for test-taking and rote memorization. In hindsight, that’s obviously a mistake. One we can’t seem to stop making, despite its obviousness.
Part of the reason we can’t stop making the same mistake is that we fear falling behind. All of us.
But anxiety and grade-chasing are not good ways to achieve a holistically good life. Even if you get to Harvard, your kid will have sacrificed so much they didn’t consider they’ll still regret it. Happens to people all the time. Still, we trick ourselves. “I’ll let my kid be happy after they get into a good school.” As if we’re the exception to life’s rules.
The truth is, success looks different for everyone. And the only way to have a successful life, in the long run, is to not over-optimize for any particular measurement but to follow a more intuitive path – full of twists and turns and things you can’t predict, much less measure.
That unpredictability is where all your kid’s potential and opportunities lie. Don’t close them off to it just because everyone craves the illusion of certainty.
Allowing your kid to follow their curiosity in life is terrifying, when everyone else is anxiously measuring their kids and comparing results. It’s tough to stand out.
But well worth it.
Thanks for reading,
Taylor + rebelEducator team
What we’re looking at:
What we’ve published this week:
How to homeschool or unschool your kids for free
Questions to ask when considering a new school
Why standardization is ruining your kid’s desire to learn
It’s certainly the case that school is one of the first places that we are steered onto the default path.
This leads to that that lead to this etc etc. until you wake up around 50. You’re kids have left home and what have you achieved in life. Were you happy?
You touch on a concept here around The Pathless Path as written about by Paul Millerd. Worth checking out.