Is Academic Performance a Good Predictor of Anything Important At All?

Alwyn Lau
4 min readAug 16, 2022

I was thinking about this question last week, during lunch with some former colleagues from an international school I worked in about twenty years ago. We were talking about our ex-students and, at some point in the conversation, a certain pattern emerged.

Oh, remember that half-English half-Malaysia kid who was hopeless in Geography in Year 7 (the IGCSE equivalent of Form 1)? He’s the managing editor of two online newspapers now. And that Pakistani girl who was always struggling in Year 8 History? She recently got a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering. And what about that Bangladesh boy who couldn’t answer a single question in year 10 Geography? He’s now a surgeon in Portugal.

Being on Linked-In, I also see many of my past students’ profiles and — omg — I often fail to ‘recognise’ them, not just appearance-wise but ‘professionally’. This is to say that two decades ago I’d never imagine this girl, quiet as heck in class for three years, ending up as a Chief Marketing Officer of a broadband provider or that boy, unable to attain any higher than the bottom twenty percent in class in 2006, being based in Cardiff as a Financial Director in 2022.

Immediately, some readers may highlight the point that, hey, this is an international school I’m talking about. So maybe that already suggests advantages not open to most Asian kids?

That may be true but this notion that performing very well academically (or the opposite) is a strong predictor of anything substantial in said students’ career is also quasi-B.S (see note 1). once I think about my own relatives and classmates from public schools.

For example, one of my cousins was total crap at school. Now he runs about three businesses dealing with car repairs and owns half a dozen homes. Another distant cousin who was known in school only for his height now zips back and forth from Jakarta to his multi-gazillion dollar home in Glenmarie. Almost everyone I can remember from my SEA Park secondary school class, not just the ‘top-scorers’ are now accomplished professionals most of whom are based overseas (see note 2).

Am I saying that academic results are completely irrelevant so maybe let’s scrap school entirely? Well, no.

Schooling is an essential part of our children’s formative years, so it simply wouldn’t be smart to ‘abandon’ it or dismiss it. It’s in school that much of our character is formed, our socialization skills are birthed and our identities negotiated. For all its flaws, we can’t chuck aside formal education as an institution without a good replacement.

Nevertheless, we can ensure our children participate (and even excel) in school without ‘demanding’ unrealistic grades from them. We can nurture the positive effects of schooling (eg, friendship, learning, etc.) whilst jettisoning the negatives (eg, academic pressure and comparison, report-card-as-identity-marker syndrome, etc.)

The future is opaque. Our predictive skills are terrible.

We simply do not know how our girl will think twenty years from now, so maybe we should lose the 24/7 helicopter parenting on homework and tuition and what-not? We simply do not know which areas our boy will develop an expertise for when he’s older, so maybe we needn’t go ballistic if he brings back a less-than-stellar report card? We simply do not know what paths may open for our children once they learn to decide for themselves and begin interacting as adults, so maybe let’s quit comparing our kids with their cousins all the time?

Given how different our teenagers will develop and mature (especially once they’re past their mid-twenties) — given all the uncertainty discussed — maybe parents (especially Asian parents) need to learn to CHILL OUT when it comes to our kids’ school results.

As parents, perhaps we need more patience and understanding. We should focus less on ‘micro-managing’ their academic performance and more on guidance, encouragement, imparting principles, warning against dangers, etc.

Give them space. In time, they will do us proud.

Note 1: This isn’t just my opinion. See Borghans, L., Golsteyn, B. H., Heckman, J. J., & Humphries, J. E. (2016). What grades and achievement tests measure. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(47), 13354–13359 and Kautz, T., Heckman, J. J., Diris, R., Ter Weel, B., & Borghans, L. (2014). Fostering and measuring skills: Improving cognitive and non-cognitive skills to promote lifetime success.

Note 2: Me? I got “only” four As’ for SPM (the Malaysian O-Levesl) and barely passed my Malay (sigh) but since then I’ve worked in no fewer than four countries and hold a PhD in Political Philosophy. I was super-quiet in school but in the past fifteen years have run hundreds of training seminars. Go figure?

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Alwyn Lau

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.