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Grades, Intelligence, & the Gold Star that Got Away - John Clark

Grades, Intelligence, & the Gold Star that Got Away

3 minutes


John Clark offers a poignant reminder that we need to recognize and encourage a child’s intelligence with all their activities, not just the academic ones.

When I was in the Fifth Grade (the last year that I went to a day school—I would homeschool henceforth), my best subject was Spelling.

Luckily for my ego, everyone knew I was a great speller because my teacher had a chart on the front wall that had each student’s name on it along with their weekly spelling grades beside. If you were one of the fortunate few who received a perfect score, you were awarded the proverbial “gold star” by your name. After twenty weeks or so, I had about twenty gold stars—the hottest streak of my academic career, before or since. A veritable hat trick of orthography.

Alas, like most of my (five or six) academic highlights, it was fleeting. Around Week 21, I used the wrong preposition in my spelling workbook and received a 98%.

There’s a lot we can observe about a 98%: it’s a pretty good score, it’s an “A+,” nobody ever failed out of school for getting 98’s. But for all its admirable qualities, a 98% is not a 100%.

Years later, I came across these words of William Shakespeare: “All that glitters isn’t gold.” Later in life, some of the students in my English Literature class—mere neophytes to the art and science of literary criticism—may not have fully understood what Shakespeare meant with those immortal words. But I knew darn well what he meant: clearly, Shakespeare was illustrating, in no uncertain terms, that a 98% does not get a gold star in Fifth Grade spelling class.

My chart at the front of the room contained twenty little boxes with shiny gold stars in them, and one box with a surprisingly-clearly handwritten “98%” in it. Guess which one I stared at every day?

Maybe the fact that I obsessed over this grade made me unique; on the other hand, maybe it made me just like everyone else.

All kidding aside, maybe many of us—maybe all of us—are tempted to define ourselves not by our academic successes, but by our academic failures. (By the way, although I somewhat humorously highlight a 98% grade, I had a string of academic failures in college that were legendary. I had a lot more C’s on my report cards than the one in my name.)

You can claim that this type of thinking is ridiculous. You can claim that a person should not define himself by any grade, let alone his worst grade. And you’d be right. The problem is that this concept can be a hard thing to accept, or even understand, when you are eleven years old. After all, for all life’s facets, for all life’s endeavors, most of us are graded on academics and academics alone. And that can be a bit ridiculous, too.


Even later in life, many adults tend to define themselves by the grades they received decades prior. They may have been deemed “poor students,” and they believed it. But in some of these cases, it was not that the students were unintelligent; it was that the teachers failed to recognize intelligence.

Pigeonholing the divine design of human intelligence, some educators failed to understand the nature of intelligence; some failed to understand the creativity of human intelligence; and some failed to understand the genius of a loving God. Because as cognitive psychology and neuroscience has increasingly illustrated over the past few decades, many of those who were once considered terribly unintelligent were actually geniuses.

Though not all of them translate into great grades, there are a multitude of types of intelligence. Howard Gardner, Harvard psychologist and author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, argues that there is “linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence,” “musical intelligence,” “spatial intelligence,” “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence,” and “two forms of personal intelligence, one directed toward other persons, one directed toward oneself.”

But while there are many manifestations of intelligence and of genius, much of academia tends to reward exactly one: book smarts. And even “book smarts” tends to be narrowly defined due to its emphasis on mathematics. Sadly, the vast majority of genius remains academically untested and thus, ungraded, unnoticed, and unrewarded.

I understand the need for grades, but I also believe that each of our children’s unique manifestations of intelligence should be acknowledged and encouraged.

Gardner argues that intelligence is “a property of all human beings.” That’s not a bad message to your children who are struggling with mere academic learning. It’s also a reminder that God loves them uniquely.

The lesson for parents here is simple. We need to disallow our children to define themselves by grades and tests. We need to recognize and encourage the intelligence and genius of all their activities, and not just the academic ones. Above all else, remember that loving God is the greatest genius of them all.

Oh, and one last thing. Please remember to help them with their Spelling homework.

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About John Clark

John Clark

John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”

  • Ana

    Totally agree, intelligence is not indicated by grades, having kids with special needs I have found more passionate and driven kids that were considered less than average by some but not us, and tests are limited by the authors, we won’t even go into that, we could fill a library with books on that subject. The sad part is when they get out in the world that is all the world looks at, fortunately there are organizations recognizing and helping those with special needs that make the world a better place. As for Shakespear, I think you missed it-all that glitters is not gold
    phrase of glitter
    the attractive external appearance of something is not a reliable indication of its true nature.
    basically your gold stars don’t mean as much as you think, especially when you start having to live life as an adult, that said it is a good phrase for most of us to keep worldly things in perspective and be wary of shiny things.

  • JMC

    The focus on mere academics, while on the one hand may be necessary in a school, can end up crippling kids. I know one who could memorize anything, but ask her to apply it, and she was lost, because she didn’t have special ability. Though her grades were straight A’s, she was always made to feel as if she had no worth because she couldn’t apply what she knew. Yet ask that kid to pick up a musical instrument, one she had never seen before, and she’d figure out in mere minutes how to play it, and play it well. And she could write stories like nobody’s business. Yet she was made to feel worthless because she couldn’t apply math or science.
    I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe there isn’t one, beyond simply recognizing genius as it is, not as we would like it to be.

  • Karen Doll

    I too was a spelling savant. I remember one night when I was tucked in bed, yet not asleep, I overheard my 2 older brothers struggling to spell the word, scissors. I was younger by 4 and 8 years, yet I surprisingly called out into the night, s…c…i…s…s…o…r…s. They, to say the least, were flabbergasted! And, I too had C’s on my report cards in high school and later in college. I had to study, long and hard to do well. I do love words though–everything about words makes me practically giddy! And, I love to put my passions into words, and thankfully the dear Lord has blessed me with wonderful opportunities to do so. I’m also a creative individual and love to play around with humor in my pieces, play with words, add a little spice, if you will. Now, while some of my editors would indeed award me that elusive Gold Star for my creativity and playfulness, others would have me in that 98% category–great educational content, well written, but a bit too much creative flair. I LOVE this God given talent for creativity and feel blessed, but I just need to reign it in when necessary. Thank you, John for this wonderful post and reminder to applaud all accomplishments!! Blessings!

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