Bennett Day School News

What Students Gain When They Pursue Accomplishment Over Achievement

At Bennett Day, we made a conscious choice in the design of our Middle and Upper School programs to embrace accomplishment over the false virtues associated with “rigor” and “achievement.”

Written by: Martin Moran, Lead Designer of Middle and Upper School 
Published: June 2, 2023

Accomplishment vs. Achievement

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times focusing on the dichotomy between “achievement” and “accomplishment” made me think a lot about the foundations on which Bennett Day was built and the ethos behind the program. The essay eloquently pointed out that, in a world that often places a high premium on external recognition and measurable success, it is important to consider the value of accomplishment over mere achievement.

While achievements are typically associated with tangible outcomes and external validation, accomplishments embody personal growth, resilience, and the fulfillment of one's intrinsic goals. Further, that the pursuit of accomplishment is more likely to lead to an increased curiosity and love of learning than the pursuit of achievement.

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Why Rigor Disconnects Students from the Experience of Learning

Most schools, when focusing on achievement, ask students to imagine a world many years into the future when the achievements they amass will collectively, hopefully, result in a vague positive outcome like graduation or college acceptance. Under the illusion that comes with the dangerous concept of “rigor,” these chimerical outcomes may or may not be dependent upon all the achievements seen together, let alone the outcome of a single test or homework assignment.

This disconnects the student from the experience of learning, makes it less relevant, and thus disengages students from the process itself. Students approach learning from the perspective of “I think this may help me someday. I don’t know how, when, or why, but if I don’t do it, I could be hurting the future me. Or maybe not. I guess I should try.” It’s no wonder that students feel bored by school – they’re never able to see the actual fruits of their work, which is not only essential for motivation but for retention as well.

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How Project-Based Learning Builds Accountability and a Sense of Purpose

Our program was built on the idea that learning comes from a sense of purpose and a goal of accomplishment. Our Project-Based Learning (PBL) environment is fundamentally built on the idea of accomplishment. Students design and revise projects with the very specific and tangible goal of presenting them at Demo Night. There is a definitive connection between what they learn and what they create and the accountability that comes with the presentation of the final product. In a student’s mind, there is a direct line between what they learn, what they create, and the positive feelings of accomplishment.

As I have watched our Middle and Upper School students dive deep into their PBL projects this trimester, I have seen this play out in person; students who came to us disengaged or school agnostic have now involved themselves fully in their projects and found areas of interest. Meanwhile, many students are diving deep into the type of academic content their peers can only dream of “covering” in their AP and IB classes. 

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Student Achievement as a Byproduct of Accomplishment

The amazing thing about the pursuit of accomplishment over achievement is that, despite the lack of singular focus on the accolades and achievements that many base their reputation on, Bennett Day students have “achieved” at an incredible rate. From victories in state and national academic competitions in architecture, construction, and aerospace, to test scores above state and national averages, and acceptances at over 40 colleges and universities this year, the achievements have come fast and furious as byproducts of our focus on accomplishment. 

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What is the true value of education?

While achievements certainly have their place in society and can bring external recognition, the true value of education lies in the sense of accomplishment that arises from personal growth, resilience, and pursuing meaningful endeavors. Accomplishments are enduring, as they are deeply intertwined with an individual's personal development, character, and fulfillment. By embracing the value of accomplishment, individuals can embark on a journey of self-discovery, learn resilience in the face of challenges, and find purpose and satisfaction in the pursuit of meaningful goals.

Meanwhile, when the pursuit of these accomplishments is done thoughtfully and deeply, the achievements on which so many base their entire programs’ success come naturally without the stress, pressure, and burnout of so-called “rigorous” programs. It also creates a level of self-awareness that few adolescents possess.

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Developing Thoughtful & Engaged Learners

Students here at Bennett are not only thoughtful, engaged, and deep learners, but they can articulate a sense of themselves as academics and learners in a manner that few students their age can. If you’ve read any of our “Senior Spotlights” this year, you’ll notice a common theme: our students not only can tell you what they want to do, but more importantly, why they want to do it. That’s incredibly rare and truly wonderful. 

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Check out the Senior Spotlights published so far:

Ultimately, it is the accomplishments that shape us and leave a lasting impact, defining who we are and what we contribute to the world. At Bennett Day, we made a conscious choice in the design of our Middle and Upper School programs to embrace accomplishment over the false virtues associated with “rigor” and “achievement.”

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As we complete another school year and see the amazing accomplishments our students demonstrate on a daily basis, we not only feel incredible about the choices we have made but grateful for the community of students and families who have supported this mission and given us the opportunity to work with these wonderful kids. 

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