Skip to Content


Virginia Journal of Education

Diving In

What are the real qualities and abilities we want our young people to take away from their schooling?

by Samantha Grabelle

For the past couple of years, I have served as a volunteer judge at the Academic Decathlon, “a team competition wherein [high school] students match their intellects with students from other schools.” Every student competes in the 10 events and every team is made up of three “honor,” or “A” students; three “scholastic,” or “B” students; and three “varsity,” or “C” students. There are seven multiple-choice exams—one in each of the following subject areas: art, economics, language and literature, mathematics, music, social science, and a science “Super Quiz.” There is also an essay exam, a speech event, and an interview. The scores of each student on a team are added up and the team with the highest score, of course, wins.
In the book I wrote with Dennis Littky, The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business, we began on page one with what we believe are “The Real Goals of Education.” There are fourteen goals listed and I often find myself viewing academic endeavors I read about or witness through the lens of these “real goals.”

The Academic Decathlon itself, as a team-based competition where teammates’ individual scores are combined into an overall score, is a fine embodiment of the goal of being able to work independently and with others. And, without perseverance , another real goal, it would be impossible to finish the 10-leg event that starts early in the morning and lasts into the evening hours.
I appreciate these aspects of the competition, but I am always troubled by the seeming celebration of the traditional goals of education one finds throughout most of this long day. What I mean is, though the students are out of the school building and away from their textbooks and classrooms, the Academic Decathlon, in many ways, looks a lot like a day in the life of a large, traditional high school.

The seven events, aside from the essay, speech and interview, all require answering multiple-choice questions. The teams are meant to study vigorously to prepare for each of the tests. The topics vary: last year, all of the subjects focused on the Civil War, this year it is Latin America. Like a standard high school class, the application of the knowledge is only necessary for the regurgitation of memorized information. Only the speech, essay and interview “test” something more concrete than the student’s ability to fill in bubbles on a piece of paper. The speech topic is up to the student, and the interview mimics a typical college admissions or job interview format. The real-world skills and knowledge necessary to do well in these two events clearly take a backseat to test-taking skill and theoretical knowledge. In fact, in determining if a student is an honors, scholastic or varsity student, and therefore eligible for the competition, the rules state that “grades for courses shall not be used in GPA computations for Academic Decathlon competition purposes if the nature of the course is performance-based. The skills that are developed in these courses tend to be more technical/vocational or hands-on, and the majority of a student’s grade in these courses is performance-based and/or is subjective in nature.”

The Real World
Another of Dennis’ and my real goals of education is to be able to use the world around you well. When the Decathlon claims that hands-on and performance-based skills do not demonstrate the caliber of a student, they are just following the status quo of our current education system. Test-taking skills prepare a student to continue being a student within an academic institution; hands-on skills prepare him or her to be an adult within the world. Another goal we list in the book is to be able to look at things differently . A multiple-choice test is the epitome of a system that believes there is only one way to look at things.

I am disappointed by the Decathlon’s heavy reliance on testing to determine a student’s, and a school’s, academic fortitude. But, as a speech judge and interview judge (my favorite events), I am thrilled by the extent to which the students are set up to pursue many of the real goals of education by preparing for and executing their speeches and interviews.

The Real Goals
One of the real goals that is most in play here – being ready to take risks – is realized simply by giving the speech, an act that many people find scarier than death. And, if trying to get a high score, the goals of being passionate and being creative will necessarily inform a student’s speech and interview. The goal to speak well, write well, read well and work well with numbers is found in both of these events as well, though not always the math aspect, which is, in part, covered by the math test section. But, because it is simply a test of “fundamental subject matter” in algebra, geometry, etc., it does not fully embody what we mean by working well with numbers, which implies an ability to approach the numbers and mathematical applications presented by the real world with a sense of mastery.

The process of preparing for the essay, interview and speech events requires problem-solving and critical thinking skills, another of the goals we listed. After each student gives his or her five-minute prepared speech, they are given a list of topics from which they must choose one upon which to give a two-minute impromptu speech. There is no greater time to demonstrate problem-solving and critical thinking than during those two minutes.

This is also true of the interview, the one event that mirrors the real-world competition we all take part in when we apply for a job or to a school. When I witness a student stumbling and stuttering through the interview, especially a junior or senior, I am angered by the fact that this could be the only time they will receive feedback on this all-important, life-changing, pass-or-fail performance. We all know that a person’s ability to present themselves well, in person and on paper, plays a larger role in determining their academic and career success than any test score or grade. We are failing our students when we don’t prepare them for this experience. Why is it that so many school districts leave the job of teaching students how to put together a resume, write a cover letter, make a professional phone call, or interview for a job or a school, to poorly-funded government job training summer programs? Why is this not a part of the standard curricula or exit exams? We are sending them out into a world that expects them to succeed as individuals without arming them with the ability to express their individuality. Preparing our young people for the real world is the overriding theme of the real goals of education. If we are not doing this, we are failing them and society.
The students who excel at the interview have most likely been left to their own devices in figuring out how to present themselves well. They know how to demonstrate their integrity and self-respect, and, like the “volunteer work” section of any well-rounded resume, their demonstration of caring about and wanting to give back to their community will always result in a higher score in the interview and speech events.
More often than you might think, a student stands up and gives a speech about the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act or exit exams or the lack of attention to the genocide in Darfur, and becomes an inspiring example of moral courage . At last year’s Decathlon, a young man gave a powerful and thought-provoking speech about the ethical implications of a religious group donating money to support victims of Hurricane Katrina, but earmarking it only for followers of the same religion. In his speech he explained that he had raised this question in his Sunday School class despite his fears of ostracization: absolute moral courage.

There is usually an even mix of both stirring speakers and those that blunder at the podium each year. And each year, during the speech and interview judges’ training sessions, we are told that while the teams have been hard at work preparing for the tests, it would behoove us to remember that most of them do not put as much, if any, emphasis on preparing for the speech and interview competitions.
There are Resource Guides, Research Guides and Basic Guides for all legs of the event except the essay, the interview and the planned speeches. The value of the skills required to succeed in these events – the ability to write well, speak well and speak well about oneself – is clearly overlooked in the grand pursuit of testing content-based knowledge with multiple-choice questions. Just like in a traditional school.

The test questions and the live quiz require the skills and knowledge to succeed at the Decathlon and in our current education system, and perhaps if one goes on Jeopardy. The essay, interview and speeches require the skills and knowledge to succeed in life. When we push these kids out of the four walls of their high schools and the 10 legs of the Decathlon, they may be experts at taking and passing tests, but will they continue to seek out knowledge? Will they know what their passions are? Will they be happy, lifelong learners who enjoy their work and their lives ?
There are no tests that will predict this and there is nothing one can memorize to prepare for it. Life is not a didactic classroom, a textbook or an academic competition. It is whatever we make it. Is it possible to get this incredibly important, yet simple message across to our young people without helping them to pursue what Dennis and I have called the real goals of education? I don’t believe it is. Is it possible to incorporate the real goals into your schools and classrooms while still abiding by the traditional education system’s goals? Perhaps.

The Challenge
Page one of the “Real Goals” chapter of The Big Picture begins with the following passage: “When I watch kids walk into the building on their first day of school, I think about what I want them to be like when they walk out on their last day. I also think about what I want them to be like on the day I bump into them in the supermarket 10 or 20 years later.”

As you begin a new school year, as you set up your classrooms, decorate your bulletin boards, organize your desks, and plan out your curricula, how will you weave these real goals of education into your daily practice? How will administrators inspire their faculty with the real goals? How will parents talk to their children about their school days with an eye towards their future and what they really want them to get out of their education?

 I believe if you use the world around you well; sharpen your skills at speaking, writing, reading, and computing; think critically and problem-solve; embrace your passion and creativity; take risks; look at things differently; desire to give back; hold onto your sense of integrity and self-respect; dare to show moral courage; and, persevere, you can do anything you set your mind to. If you are a lifelong learner you can inspire your students to be so, also. And, if you do all of these things, I have no doubt that you will find real joy in your work and in your life.

Grabelle ( is the co-author of The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business (ASCD, 2004) which won the Association of Educational Publishers’ Distinguished Achievement Award in 2005. She also helped write and edit the FIRST organization’s coffeetable book about its LEGO League and high school robotics’ competitions.



Lobby With Us. Rally With Us.
Join Us!


Tell your Senator to vote ‘No’ on anti-union bill.

Check out our products!


Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard