Thursday, 21 June 2012

Thought of the Day #35

"What are we trying to do? If our goal is to get kids to become critical thinkers, life long learners who really enjoy thinking and reading and playing with numbers and ideas. If we want to help them become good learners and good people who can create and sustain a functioning democracy, then education would look very different from the way it looks right now, at least in our culture.

We would have to question the use of grades. What research finds is that when kids are trying to get good grades in school, three things tend to happen. They begin to lose interest in the learning itself. Now the purpose is just to get a good grade rather to engage with the question or the problem at hand. Second, they tend to think less deeply and retain knowledge for a shorter period of time compared to kids who don’t have any grades. And third, they tend to pick the easiest possible tasks. That’s not because they’re being lazy, it’s because they’re being rational. If we tell kids we want to see a better report card, we want to see higher grades, naturally they’ll pick the shortest book or the easiest project because that maximises the chances of achieving that goal.

So, regardless of what your goal is, if you’re interested in assessing kids, and teachers and schools to see ‘are we doing a good job here’, you would never need tests in order to see whether kids are learning and where they need help. And you would never need grades to report the results of the evaluation we place on those assessments.

We would certainly do away with standardised testing. The kind of testing used in particular states or provinces where everyone takes the same test and then you compare everyone’s scores. These tests tend to measure what matters least. It tends to be a good marker for family income because what standardised tests mostly measure is the size of the houses near a school. But it’s the case that some our deepest thinking kids just don’t do well on tests. And some kids who get great scores have never had an original idea in their lives.


‘Competition builds character’. In fact what we find is that by any reasonable notion of character in terms of psychological health or self-esteem, that competition undermines that and creates a kind of neurosis because we come to think of ourselves as ‘good’ and ‘competent’ only to the extent that we have defeated other people. And so we’re always playing this desperate ‘King of the Mountain’ game where we’re worried about triumphing over other people and stepping on their faces, and looking at them as if they’re going to step on our faces. That has two effects. One is that it’s horrible for us in terms of psychological development because there’s a perpetual sense of disease and anxiety. But second, it very logically has a destructive effect on our relationships. We compete because we’re raised that way, not because we’re born that way.

Take for example the belief in ‘survival of the fittest’, which is seen as a Darwinian notion. In fact Charles Darwin never even used the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. That was coined by a right-wing social thinker in the nineteenth-century named Herbert Spencer who tried to corrupt Darwin’s thinking to his own reactionary political purposes. What Darwin talked about was natural selection which means that the individual organism that’s best able to adapt to a changing environment is more likely to be around and reproduce. But that doesn’t specify competition as a mechanism. In fact often the active avoidance of competition, if not the deliberate pursuit of cooperative strategies, turns out to make it more likely that organisms and entire species will survive.

The research consistently shows that competition not only isn’t necessary for excellence, but tends to impede excellence on most tasks. And the more challenging the task, the more ingenuity, problem-solving skill it requires, the more competition tends to disrupt that achievement. Excellence pulls in one direction and competition pulls in another. And in fact, another kind of research study corroborates that. If you take a whole bunch of people and give them a task to do, some kind of problem to work out, and half of them are told ‘see if you can figure out how to do this task’. And the other half are told ‘this is a contest, with a prize to whoever wins, whoever does the best job’, study after study after study across cultures, across gender, across ages find that the people who compete end up doing an inferior job on that task.


At the moment it appears as though much of what happens in schools in North America is really for the convenience of people who have most of the power. There is if anything an active discouragement of critical questioning. Corporations claim they want kids who are able to ‘think outside the box’, but only so far as they’re caught within a larger box that works to the advantage of the free market. Which means that the market economy, based on competition, based on economic rather than human considerations, ends up controlling the system" - Alfie Kohn, Education Theorist, Human Resources.