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How to Cultivate Excellence in Education

As Christian teachers and parents, we can help students become all God created them to be.

Student holding backpack

Schools that partner with families and communities to support children are more likely to produce flourishing students. However, as we move beyond these basic tenets, there are many things we can rethink in education.

Contrast these two scenes from last school year.

Scene 1: Top students identified their most influential teachers and recognized them for the impact they have had on their educational journey. These teachers encouraged, engaged, and exhorted students whether they were virtual or in-person. The teachers and students were honored in front of parents and community members.

Scene 2: “It’s like the teachers want us to cheat.” This comment from my daughter caught my attention. My children who are in middle school and high school were discussing how teachers were assessing students. Many tests of recall were open notes because the teachers assumed that kids at home would be using them as well. Allowing in-person students to also use notes made it fair … and ensured that very little was actually being retained. 

Having taught “zoomies” and “roomies” (online and in-person students) simultaneously while wearing a mask, I know this past year was hard. I also know that it seemed like many elementary, middle, and high school students were just going through the motions for much of the year. Sadly, this isn’t entirely new. To illustrate, our reading achievement scores on international comparisons (according to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) have remained average since 2000.

This year, we need to cultivate and celebrate excellence described in the first scene. As Christian teachers and parents, we need to help students become all that God created them to be.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant believes we need to rethink some of our assumptions. We do know some basic things that work in school.

  • Students learn best in safe environments that encourage risk-taking and from teachers who hold them to high expectations while giving them the tools to thrive.
  • Students’ need to be mentally engaged to demonstrate meaningful learning, and receiving feedback on performance is essential.
  • Schools that partner with families and communities to support children are more likely to produce flourishing students.

However, as we move beyond these basic tenets, there are many things we can rethink. I will offer two things to stop and one to start: Stop asking children what they want to be when they grow up. Stop telling children to pursue their passions. Start cultivating excellence through grit and gratitude.

Stop asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Adam Grant suggests we stop asking our children what they want to be when they grow up. Although this is a frequently asked question, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense and probably doesn’t promote excellence. I know I hated the question when I was a kid and was anxious to find an answer — any answer — and this is from someone who has been in the same profession for the past 25 years.

There are at least three reasons why this is a bad question.

1. We’re asking a child who might know five to seven professions what they want to be doing in 10 to 15 years.

This can unnecessarily box them into a profession because it can create tunnel vision.

If we made 6-year-olds adhere to their professional aspirations, we would certainly have a surplus of firefighters! If at age 8 a child wants to be a teacher, that child will likely have that aspiration reinforced for years to come. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless she would have found mechanical engineering or entrepreneurship more fulfilling. Grant asks, “Do we want a kid to become obsessed with a career path they might hate?” Early commitments to career without exposure to a wide range of options can feed confirmation bias that can limit what the Lord wants for our children.

2. We don’t want our children to believe there is only one job that will ultimately fulfill them.

This can lead to unrealistic expectations and significant career disappointment.

3. We don’t want our children’s identities to be wrapped up in their careers.

As Christians, we know that careers are more than a professional vocation. Our children are complex and have many ways they can lead flourishing lives. Certainly, we want them to be excellent in their future vocations, but the best way to do that is for them to pursue excellence and gain meaningful experiences through and beyond school right now.

"Our children are complex and have many ways they can lead flourishing lives. Certainly, we want them to be excellent in their future vocations, but the best way to do that is for them to pursue excellence and gain meaningful experiences through and beyond school right now.."

Jon Eckert, Ed.D.

Stop saying, “Pursue your passion.”

“What are you passionate about?” is another hard question for children — and many adults. How do we know our passions when we’re 9 years old? When I was 9, I was passionate about basketball, drawing, being better than my brothers, and avoiding chores. As an adult, I’m not in the NBA, a professional artist, better than my brothers, or avoiding chores. Did I fail to pursue my passions? That’s the wrong question.

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport suggests that we should all be collecting skills and experience. As we do this, passions will emerge. This is great advice for all of us, but this is particularly good for children. My childhood “passions” were really opportunities for me to develop skills. Through basketball, I learned the benefits of teamwork, hard work, and performing under pressure.

Drawing was an outlet for my creativity and sensemaking of the world around me. Being better than my brothers led to working hard at anything we all cared about — school, Bible memory, and kickball. Avoiding chores — I’m not sure what skills that developed. However, I also needed to learn in other areas as well. My appreciation of different subjects, writing, and public speaking have all been extremely important in my development as a professor, author, and speaker. I’m passionate about my work, but I didn’t get here by pursuing my passions. We develop expertise as we hone skills, gain knowledge, and expand our experiences.

Start cultivating excellence through grit and gratitude.

We can’t avoid the fact that grit is essential for longterm commitment to excellence. However, grit isn’t just another word for compliance. Grit flows from a determination to succeed and persevere over time. Angela Duckworth, the preeminent expert on grit, does believe passion plays a role in the development of expertise. However, this doesn’t contradict what has already been said. She suggests that elementary children need a variety of experiences to determine interests and then some commitment to developing skills in order to determine if there is passion. In her family, each year, every member of the family commits to getting better at something. They commit for a fixed amount of time and then reevaluate.

In the end, whatever we do this year must be fueled by gratitude. James 1:17 reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” God has given us so many good gifts — schools, tools for learning, friends, opportunities, health, sports, music, and teachers. As we consider what excellence looks like this year, let’s celebrate all of these gifts together with our children. More importantly, let’s celebrate our children as gifts. Most importantly, let’s celebrate our Creator who declared us all “good” at the time of our creation. God’s good is certainly our hope for excellence.


More Educational Insights

For many years, Craig Wright taught a course on geniuses at Yale University and put what he had found in his recent book, The Hidden Habits of Genius. He defines a genius as “a person of extraordinary mental powers whose original works or insights change society in some significant way for good or for ill across cultures and across time. In brief, the greatest genius produces the greatest impact on the greatest number of people over the longest period of time.” These geniuses have habits. Of these habits, three are particularly interesting or our consideration of excellence this year.

1. Avoid the prodigy bubble. Prodigies are amazing, and they’re rewarded by the systems in which they thrive. They might end up at a university at 15, but research shows that they’re less likely to meet Wright’s definition of genius because they’re satisfied with a system that has been rewarding them since they were young.

2. Develop a love for learning. This might seem obvious, but this is a love of a wide range of learning that will continue to build skills, knowledge, and experience over a lifetime. Curiosity is essential!

3. Leverage your differences. Geniuses aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They see targets and goals that others can’t see because they view the world differently. Helping students see their unique combination of gifts as their blessing from the Lord for the world will be important work this year.


This article was originally published in HomeLife magazine.

Jon Eckert, Ed.D., is a professor at Baylor University as the Copple Chair for Christian School Leadership. He is also a monthly contributor to HomeLife magazine’s School Zone department. Jon enjoys playing basketball and spending as much time as possible with his wife and children.

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