The Last Five Points

“Hey Mr. Watt.”

“Oh, hey, Alan*, what’s up?”

“I just got my grades… I’m not unhappy.  I don’t want you to think that.”


“But… well, what do I have to do to jump the last five points. To a hundred?”

“It’s a great question.”

“Does it have an answer?”

“Sure it does.  And it doesn’t.  Here, let me show you this painting.”

“Wow, that’s really good.  Is it Egyptian?”

“No, a student did that. She got really excited about Egyptian mythology, and wanted to try to make her own version of the Book of the Dead.  She didn’t have to, but she did anyway.  This is the chapter about the ceremony of the opening of the mouth. The hieroglyphs are accurate, if a bit messy.  The painting is correct in all the major details. And she did two others of two other parts of the ceremony.  I only got to keep this one.”**

“So she got a 100 from you?”


“By bribing you with a painting.”

“No… by doing a project that demonstrated her enthusiasm, her dedication, and her research. Finding the illustrations took time.  Figuring out which panels from the Book of the Dead she wanted to copy took time.  Learning something about the hieroglyphs took time.  Learning the myths took time.”

“So you want me to make a painting.”


“So a paper.”


“What, then?”

“You remember how we talked the other day about how schools are good at teaching compliance but bad at teaching initiative?”


“Well, the last five points are all about initiative. About dedication. I can’t make you do a painting, or a project, or an essay, or any of those things.  All I can say is that crossing that last five-point gap isn’t about homework, or class participation, or anything like that.  It’s about wowing yourself.”

“Well… I did think we went over the Olympics too fast.”

“Here’s some books to get you started. You don’t have to.”

“I want to.”

* Name changed to protect a not-necessarily-innocent minor.

** Some details changed, but essentially true.

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  1. Unfortunately, the compliance vs. initiative thing can probably be explained pretty effectively by Ivan Illich or John Gatto. The whole educational culture is set up to breed Lisa Simpson types who “love learning” (in the sense of getting a gold star from an authority figure), are motivated by the prospect of adding items to their resume, and learn to adopt without question the values and goals of the person sitting behind the desk. Take away the prospect of reward and careerist advancement from the junior achiever types, and I don’t know if they could even grasp the concept of being interested in something for its own sake, or doing something just because they enjoy it.

  2. Great post! Students with less than 95% get a lot of our attention, and deservedly so, but you’ve demonstrated a fine way of pushing students at the top.

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