What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement


Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:



As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.

23 thoughts on “What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement

  1. “will this be graded?” is always one of the most asked questions at the beginning of our school year, and I’ve always felt that the way we “do school” in the U.S. encourages this to the detriment of our kids and their learning. So, I’ve taken to grading very little of our classroom tasks (less than half). Such a thoughtful post, as always. Thank you!

    • No surprise, Tara, that you’ve pulled back on grading & have tried to change the focus on grades right from the beginning of the year. The other question I also hate is, “Do we need to write this down?,” which robs kids of agency and leads to meaningless copying. Instead I remember kids in your class deciding for themselves that they needed input on their writing from a classmate and acting on that themselves. That’s precisely the kind of independent decision making and problem solving we should want kids to engage in.

  2. I couldn’t agree more and am saddened that even at a young age, students are concerned more with making the benchmark (and they know this word) than seeing learning as a journey. In second grade they ask, “will this be on a test?” “Can you test me today so I can read the next level book?” I love the idea of letting students wrestle with figuring “things” out, naming it on their own, and giving it a try. It allows ownership and meaningful understanding. Thank you for this thought provoking post.

    • I have to believe, Kim, that students become obsessed with levels and benchmarks because they see us valuing them so much. And all those questions you hear kids raise (as young as second grade!) are exactly the kind that Grant Wiggins cites to show that kids don’t understand that the purpose of education is transfer of learning. And again, they don’t understand that because too often we’re not teaching for that. So good, though, to know that there are districts like Paramus that are really trying to let learning take center stage!

  3. I had a discussion with a student this week and all she could say to me was, “What do I need to do to get an A?” Our culture has messed up big time, and I am not sure how we can go about fixing it. Thanks so much for your two practical examples for teaching the importance of punctuation and tense.

  4. I think you’ve nailed it once again, Vicki. I do think we tend to focus on achievement- and I would argue “achievement” is more about the grownups in the equation- at the expense of learning, which is about the kids. It sometimes feels like the kids are totally left out, and while I know that’s unintentional, it’s also damaging.
    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    • Achievement does, indeed, feel like it’s all about the grownups and the teaching of curriculum and standards versus kids. I do, though, feel like a tide is turning. It’s just so, so sad that we had to all go through the horrible implementation of the CCSS and their abysmal tests to begin to see the forest through the trees.

  5. Sadly this emphasis on meeting benchmarks vs understanding begins in kindergarten (and has trickled down to preschools). Rather than focus on how to promote thinking that leads to understanding many schools focus on adding new curriculum, new programs and changing content as a means to improve standardized test scores. These “fixes” seems counterintuitive. Yet they seem to be codified as means to an end though not based on logic or research (let alone the evil twins: anecdotal evidence and qualitative data). As you said, “If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product.” If we did that, perhaps the quarter pounder from Mickey D’s wouldn’t seem like a deal! Thanks again for another thought provoking post.

    • I confess, Claudia, that I can’t decide if all these responses are making me depressed or hopeful. They’re such poignant proof of how much is wrong with the current system – and the link I shared with another reader here specifically addresses the problem with the fixes we’ve rushed to embrace. I do hope, though, that seeing the error of our ways can be a step toward re-envisioning the purpose of education and what that implies should happen in classrooms. And I am heartened by some new research and reports that have come out, including one from the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future that I’ll be writing about soon, which says, “We have squeezed all we can out of the hard rind of econometric formulas. Now is the time to activate the human factor.” So . . . stayed tune! And thanks so much for your other response. I so want to believe that it is, indeed, possible to can change the world one classroom and one blog post at a time.

  6. Thank you for articulating the difference between learning and achievement.end the mile wide covering of standards and curriculum and bring on the uncovering and discoveryi, the way children learn naturally. Please send to HRC

    • I shared your comment with my husband who seconded the idea of sending it to Hillary, so I’ll see what I can do. But I do believe she’s got the best interest of children at heart. Let’s just hope she comes up with a Secretary of Education who really does as well.

  7. So much to love about the word learning and I think of learning when I admire my grandson. However I’m sure I’m often learning more than he is! I learned so much about reading with my son and the learning journey just continues!

    Words DO matter! You are so right!!!

    • I cannot not tell you, Fran, how fortunate I feel that my daughter went through the primary grades before they became so academic-ized. And I’m so fortunate to have readers who value words and keep me learning, too! And speaking of journeys & learning . . . will be you at NCTE?

      • Yes, I will be at NCTE. Trying to space out learning opportunities for every month! It was good to hear Hattie this month. Now I can reread with a different focus.

  8. This is what happens when learning institutions (schools…supposed to be process-oriented) start to take on a business model (product-oriented). Although this is not education’s fault, we have to work around it. Probably the most effective (and most difficult) ways is to not do it at all. Yes, we follow Common Core. Yes, we streamline curriculum. Yes, we adhere to all sorts of rules. No, we don’t let testing drive our work. Effective. Difficult. It’s all of that! It’s a process.

    • Everything’s a process, right? I so believe that if we really invest in the process, the product comes out fine in the end. And that’s true for teachers as well as for kids, as attested to by how much learning happened in Paramus this summer and how it’s now made its way into classrooms to deepen student learning!

  9. Learning should be why we are in classrooms. It produces a different end product and a different path towards that process. When achievement enters our thinking, with test scores, there is a palatable shift in tone that compromises the ability to amend thinking.To discover and play with possibilities (like the grammar exercise above) is what learning could be for our students. School doesn’t offer enough of these learning opportunities. Keeping our eyes on the real prize of an education is something we need to be mindful of. Thank you for this vital message!

    • And thanks back to you, Julieanne, since our back and forth conversation over an earlier post inspired me to write this one. I also love your point about how the shift that comes when we focus on achievement “compromises the ability to amend thinking.” That ability to consider and try to understanding ideas and then revise, refine and deepen thinking seems as important – if not more so -to me as backing up ideas with evidence. And that means creating opportunities for kids to play with and consider possibilities, which is so important in the world, not just the classroom!

  10. I love these ideas. As a teacher for over 20yrs, I believe kids are constantly worried about metrics because we plant the seeds of it at every angle-as we should though. I’ve found my students will work less hard if they know a pop quiz doesn’t have a heavy value, and harder on more meaningful assignments. Good post.

  11. Pingback: After English Class: Some Thoughts On Reading Poetry | To Make a Prairie

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