Are Grades Your Measure of Success? Think Again

Are Grades Your Measure of Success? Think Again

Driving home from a full day out with friends where the kids spent all day playing in the playground, walking out to an island to play, exploring the beach, swimming, sharing hot chips for lunch, and generally living their best life, I switched on the radio. Again, we heard about how Australian children are being ‘left behind’. I’m well aware of that criticism as an Unschooler. People are always convinced the kids are going to be left behind. I’ll let you in on a little secret… we’re quite happy about it.

Anyway, they weren’t talking about us on the radio this day, they were talking about schooled children. Our performance is slipping! We’re falling further down the ranks internationally. Tests show we’re underperforming in literacy, math, and science. So, practically everything they put top of the list of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS TO LEARN.

So many thoughts ran through my mind… Children are spending so much of their childhood at school and it’s not even achieving what it’s meant to? No one has mentioned how we’re doing on measures other than academics! What about happiness? Fulfilment? Mental health? Why do we even want to be the best? Is the point of schooling to make us look good to other countries? Do we care about what the children think? And just who is determining what ‘success’ looks like?

Why does it matter how well our children complete tests that tell us very little about who they are and how they feel? What is being missed in this constant push for high test scores?

If you blocked out everything you’ve been told about what children should do and tapped into what you innately know, what things would be important to you? If you got to choose what an education entailed, how you measured ‘success’, what you want to focus on with all that time they use up in school, what would it be?

I can think of some things…

Feeling loved.

Are Grades Your Measure of Success? Think Again

I want my children to feel a deep sense of unconditional love, and belonging. I want them to spend their days surrounded by it! Family who loves them, healthy friendships, and an active community they can belong to.

Mental health.

Children’s mental health is suffering from the lack of time for play and increasing stress and pressure. Play is vital for mental health and yet unstructured playtime is constantly declining. I want my children to feel free, not stressed. They do not always have to be more, or better. They have time and space to learn what interests them and find their passions. Their self-esteem is not damaged by constant comparison, judgement, and grading. So much of the way school operates is the opposite of what our children need to thrive. When we opt out we can create a much healthier environment.

Mental Health and grades

Emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence (otherwise known as emotional quotient or EQ) is the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.”


So much focus is given to academic intelligence, but what about emotional intelligence? Growth in this area is high up on my list of importance. Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills are things that benefit us all in our future work as well as relationships.

emotional intelligence and grades

Real-world skills.

“Australian students are falling behind on their ability to apply themselves to the real-world. Our prestigious international standing has been on a steady decline every year since 2000 according to PISA test scores, an assessment that compares the literacy, numeracy and science abilities of 15 year olds.”

Most of us know that very little of what we learn in school is remembered. Do you remember sitting in class wondering why any of this was even relevant? How it was going to help us in the future? Turns out, our results are showing children still don’t know. School is so cut off from the real world that they still don’t understand how to apply whatever they are learning outside the classroom. Is this success? Does it matter how well you do on a test if you cannot actually use the information you’ve memorised in the future?

Not to me. I’d much rather focus on real-world skills. How to look after yourself, cook a meal, manage your money, plan a project, support a friend, advocate for a cause, etc.

“In a word, learning is decontextualized. We break ideas down into tiny pieces that bear no relation to the whole. We give students a brick of information, followed by another brick, followed by another brick, until they are graduated, at which point we assume they have a house. What they have is a pile of bricks, and they don’t have it for long.”

― Alfie Kohn
real world learning

Knowing yourself.

Why do so many young adults need to take a ‘gap year’ to find themselves? Probably because they spent their childhood being told what to do, what to think, and lacking time for their real passions. How is that success? What if you could grow up knowing yourself completely? Having the time to grow into who you truly are without being told you have to be different? What if you had the time to explore many interests and find what you love?

Love of learning.

It seems we’ve all just accepted the fact that children need to be made to learn. Even though we see them pursue learning with such excitement before they go to school. Even though we see that excitement slowly dwindle with the introduction of schooling. Somehow we still attribute it to children, instead of school. We see it as a normal thing to happen as they get older. They become disinterested in the world and we need to step in and force them. We’re happy to tick the box that they can read, but don’t really worry too much about if they enjoy it or not.


When children don’t go to school and aren’t subjected to forced ‘learning’, this doesn’t happen. They keep alive that love of learning. The problem isn’t children, it’s the environment. To me, success means loving to learn. I don’t care about test scores. If you hate what you’re doing, what’s the point?

“Children of one, two, or even three throw the whole of themselves into everything they do. They embrace life, and devour it; it is why they learn so fast and are such good company. Listlessness, boredom, and apathy–these all come later. Children come to school curious; within a few years most of that curiosity is dead, or at least silent. Open a first or third grade to questions, and you will be deluged; fifth-graders say nothing. They either have no questions or will not ask them. They think, “What’s this leading up to? What’s the catch?”

-John Holt, How Children Fail

Knowing how to learn.

What’s more important, memorising facts, or knowing how to learn whatever you need? Obviously, the second. School often focuses more on memorising information and reciting it for a test. That’s not a skill I’ve ever used outside of school. What is more helpful to me is developing the skills of how to learn, and how to find the information I need. That is what will make my children successful learners. I cannot predict what they will want to do with their lives, but I can know they have the skills and tools to gain whatever knowledge they need to get there. They’ve been practising their whole childhood.


“Schools use their control over children to drive performance. As babies and children who grow up within the paradigm that embraces power and control over others, we learn that we must please our parents in order to maintain their love and acceptance. Teachers soon take over the role and authority of parents, and the majority of students—who are not motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn whatever material the curriculum requires of them at the time—learn to perform to please their teachers and parents in order to get some of their emotional needs met.”

-Parenting for Social Change, Teresa Graham Brett

It is rare that a child escapes schooling with their intrinsic motivation intact. And yet, surely this is one of the main factors that drives ‘success’ in whatever you want to do. You need to be motivated! When school is finished, who is going to be there to force you to do things? No one. It has to come from within. I want my children to be intrinsically motivated to achieve their goals.


Are Grades Your Measure of Success? Think Again

“Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.”

-Hugh MacLeod

Creativity cannot flourish when you are told what to do, when your time is controlled by bells, when you are judged. But it is so vital for problem solving, adaptability, understanding other’s perspectives, and enjoying life! Nurturing creativity is high on our list of priorities.

Finding your passions.

Imagine if you had your whole childhood to pursue what interests you. Who would you be now? What could you have discovered? We are told that we should find a job that we love, but given no time to discover what that is. One part of success to me is passionate learners who find joy in pursuing their interests. I cannot think of a better preparation for adulthood than finding the things you enjoy and becoming an expert in them.

Are Grades Your Measure of Success? Think Again

These are the things that matter to me, and many more. Of course, I know the basics of education are important too, but that takes surprisingly little time and is learned through everyday life. What does it matter how well they do at further academics if you miss all the other things? If you don’t see the whole child? If you concentrate more on test scores than contentment?

I’d honestly rather they missed learning math than missed a childhood of growing into themselves and emotional wellness. You can learn math at any time. But you can take a lifetime to recover from the stress of schooling.


October 2, 2021 at 11:08 pm

Wow, YES! I am always so happy when you post, and this time is no different. Why do we compare test results between countries? We act like that’s how people decide where to live, which is BS. Here in the states, we’re always trailing behind someone, like it’s the Olympics, and then we crack down on recess. Again. I would LOVE to see how grades would soar if they increased recess to two hours/day with all the classes together outside. Just for my own experiment. Friendships and happiness would increase exponentially, and all the world’s children deserve that. I’m always thrilled to be unschooling, but thank you for such a beautiful post!

June 8, 2022 at 5:48 pm

Love this. Slightly addicted to reading everything on your site 🤣. Keep sharing ❤️

August 27, 2022 at 9:07 am

Well i so admire you and your writing and your reasoning for unschooling absolutely resonate with mine. I want to connect with you.

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