Beyond Straight A’s: Identifying the Astrophysicist in Your Classroom

Fostering the Next Generation of High-Achievers

Identifying the Next Astrophysicist in Your ClassroomIn a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned Astrophysicist and host of COSMOS: A Space-Time Odyssey made some eye-opening comments about his educational experience. Sparking the conversation was the fact that Tyson had recently declined an invitation to give a commencement speech at his NY public elementary alma mater.

“Did you feel let down by the public school system when you were a kid?” asked interviewer Dave Davies.

Not exactly, Tyson responded. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. It was not that he refused to give a speech, but that the speech he would give is not the one the school would expect.

“I would say I am where I am today not because of what the teachers said about me or did for me, but in spite of it.”

In his elementary years, teachers pigeonholed Tyson as a middling student due to his lackluster grades in certain subjects and unrestrained energy in the classroom.

They didn’t foster his natural curiosity. They didn’t believe that he would ever go far in life. “And if you get straight A’s,” he said, “you’re the one that everyone puts forward, and they prognosticate that the straight-A person is the one most likely to succeed, because that’s the way the school system is constructed and conceived.”

What Tyson lacked in GPA, though, he certainly made up for in drive and curiosity. He developed a deep interest in the universe, on his own time, saving money to buy a telescope and camera. He taught himself astronomy. Visited planetariums. Sadly, the school system didn’t recognize this natural talent, because – as Tyson explains it – the system is set up only to reward the high-achievers. Unfortunately, this leaves countless children out in the cold.

Where do our out-of-the-box thinkers and the kids who wonder what’s going on outside the classroom window fit into this system? Tyson brings up some interesting questions. Do grades properly reflect the drive, creativity, and aptitude of our students? And how do we recognize and cultivate such potential?

In his article titled “How to get a Job at Google,” NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman brings up a similar point. It turns out that even in this hyper-competitive job market, the tech giant doesn’t necessarily look for graduates with the highest GPA. Actually, their emphasis on a diploma in general is beginning to wane.

Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google explains: “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless… We found that they don’t predict anything.”

He goes on to add that what Google is really looking for are innovative thinkers. People who can solve problems before they occur. Employees who have the ability to “process on the fly.” Moreover, they are looking for people who have experienced failure.

Straight-A students, by definition, haven’t ever failed. That can be a disincentive for the company. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” said Bock. Dealing with and learning from our missteps is key. It also breeds the type of leadership qualities companies like Google are looking for.

So apologies to anyone who was ever president of his chess club, valedictorian, or got a perfect score on her SAT’s. As Bock puts it, “We don’t care.” In order to be an effective leader at Google, he explains, “you have to be willing to relinquish power.” Step in, guide your team, and step back. That’s the type of leadership qualities that will set you apart from the rest.

Now, if everyone from NASA to Google is looking for a certain kind of young mind, and these minds are not necessarily being recognized through our current grading system, what can you do to foster this type of student in your classroom? How can you create an environment of inquiry, where students’ questions guide the learning?

If the next world-famous astrophysicist were sitting in your classroom, would you know how to foster her unique talent? Or perhaps, the more important question: would you even be able to recognize it?


Link to NPR interview: 

Link to NY Times article:

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