The Processes for Learning are More Important Than Trivia

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My child brought home an F on a test. His answers weren’t what the teacher wanted even though they weren’t wrong. My son gave correct answers in his own words. They were marked wrong because they weren’t the same words as in the book. This is not the first time this has happened. Is there anything I can do to help my child be successful in school?

Paula R.

Savannah, GA

Dear Paula:


Being “successful” can be an effective goal and a booby trap all in one.

When we were children, we achieved success in school by following instructions and giving answers expected by the teacher. Our parents knew “successful” children were learning what was needed to get ahead in the business world, where supervisors and managers would replace teachers.

In our children’s generation, the definition of success is changing. The style in the workplace is shifting from management by one boss and many workers to teamwork and independent action. Instead of knowing how simply to follow directions, our children will need to be able to trust their own thinking and risk success, or failure, by expressing their ideas.

Success will come with their innovations rather than their ability to perform by (rote) memorization.

If we want our children to succeed, we must encourage them to develop a curiosity about the world around them. Yet many teachers are only beginning to recognize this need to shift from being able to parrot “what” to understanding “why” and being able to explain it.


There are two facets to this problem. We must:

1. Help your child achieve academic success in the school that he is enrolled in, as this performance is what perspective colleges and secondary schools will review when considering him for acceptance.

2. Preserve your child’s ability and willingness to paraphrase, as this is a life skill that will serve him well beyond school and is the gateway to entrepreneurship and personal creativity.

The problem here is that the school is prizing rote memorization over your child’s ability to paraphrase, and we must cater to both realities.

When your child brings home papers – regardless of the grade – focus on whether the work reflects individual thinking or rote memorization.

Discuss a few responses that were marked correct and ask your child why they are correct. If your child answers, “Because my teacher (or book) said so,” then you might infer that your child is focusing too heavily on rote mechanics.

Even if your child made a 100, you should emphasize that rote memorization has no future, as it is essentially trivia.

Rather than using school terms such as “right” and “wrong,” let your child know that “different” answers might be perfectly acceptable as long as he can explain and defend those answers. Often in life, we do not find “right” and “wrong” answers to problems, just an array of options, each with different pros and cons. Help your child develop this type of analytical thinking, always tempered with his creativity.

Insist that your child give thoughtful answers in order to earn your “thinking grade” on his schoolwork.

A paper with answers that were well thought out might receive an F in school, but it should earn a 100 “thinking grade” at home. The “thinking grade” is based on the new definition of success, and points your child toward success in life, not just success in school. If your child’s occasional F as a result of thinking brings the final average down to a B, just remember that he will need to be “B”rave to dare to make the world a better place.

Mark the “thinking grade” on each paper and post it in the house. As your child begins to understand the difference between the two grades, he will know how to judge when to parrot and when to think for himself.


Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. She has followed her own roadmap in becoming arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today.