Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Personalised leader boards

When I was 10 years old, I started at a new school. It was in a different province from my previous school, and therefore subject to a different local authority.

All the new standard fours (grade sixes) gathered together. The three teachers had decided on their own method of splitting us up among themselves. They placed us in order of average percentage from the previous year's exams and then counted us off: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3....

All the 1s went with Mr W, all the 2s with Mr S, and all the 3s with Mr K. I didn't even know what an 'average' was. We didn't have those at my previous school. So I just opted to use my maths result (90%) and wound up in Mr W's class.

In my previous school, we didn't have such things as 'class positions'. I had been in what would probably now be called the gifted and talented stream (in our school, it was called the 'achievement' class), and probably fared a solid middle of the range performance overall. But I'm guessing. Achievement stream teachers experienced a freedom to engage in personalised/differentiated teaching that today's teachers can probably only dream of. The only person who ever compared my performance to anyone else's in the class was my mother (long story).

The new school was very much about competition.

For the first term, we were seated in order of those 'average percentages' from the previous year. This put me about 3rd or 4th, I think. The child with the highest average sat front left from the teacher's perspective, with the second placed child next to her and so on, so that the front row contained the 6 highest performers from the previous year. The lowest achievers were placed in the back of the class, because they were deemed lazy.

At the end of each term, we were tested on every subject (this was the norm in the South African education system in those days, so I tend to smile wryly when British parents complain that their children are over-tested with their four-times-in-twelve-years system). Each child's results were averaged out, and the great shuffle began. One term, I was placed 6th and so on the very edge of the first row, in imminent danger of moving back a row if I didn't look to myself. What pulled me down were my results in Afrikaans: a much higher level of fluency was required in the Eastern Cape than had been the case in Natal, and my proficiency wasn't up to the task (it soon was, though - my Afrikaans granny was mortified at my poor skills in the language, and addressed them forthwith).

I can't tell you how stressed we were around exam time. Little poppets of 10 years old, getting into a right state about dropping down the order. And the teachers relished it. They felt it was good for us. The top three achievers in our class (whose names and faces I still remember as if it were yesterday) were in very close contention. Their stress levels were the highest. How Louise sobbed when she dropped into third place one term!

Looking back now, I can't see how any of that benefited anyone, to be honest. And I wonder about the boys (because they were all boys) in the back row. The 'lazy' ones. Mark, Shaun, Tony... I wonder what they went on to do with their lives. I wonder if they continued to be 'lazy' and/or 'stupid'. I wonder if they opted out of the race at that point, or if it pushed their 'I'll show you' button.

And, of course, the same thing was going on in Mr S's and Mr W's classes. So, when Louise was in third place in our class, she may well only have been in 4th or even 12th place over all. And as for how she might have fared across the whole city, district, province, country, world.....Who knows? Ours was such a tiny pond. But the competition was so fierce, it was all we focused on.

Take, for example, the leader board on the game of Word Twist, as seen from my perspective:
How smug might I feel to be so close to the top of the list? How hard did my oldest friend, Cathy (we've known each other since January 1974) work so that her name could sit above mine on that list? Does she sit at the top of her own leader board? Does Nathan (my daughter's boyfriend) sit at the top of his? Does he have other friends who have outperformed him? And how would we fare when compared against the global results? Will I ever manage to oust Nathan from top spot?

Does it matter?

No. Not really. It's a bit of harmless fun, and the competitive aspect serves as a prod.

But I am an adult. I know that this is not Important. I know that, even if I trounce Nathan soundly, I will still feature nowhere on any global achievement list. I also know that, even if I did, it wouldn't change anything.

But when I was 10 (and 11 and 12 and...), it mattered a lot. And nowhere near as much to me as it did to some of the kids who wanted to get into medical school or whose parents bribed them with rewards or threatened them punishment.

I wish I could go back and find out what model that earlier school followed (if any) that resulted in a situation where none of us knew or cared where we featured in the class rankings. We only knew that we had done better or worse than the previous term, and that our results in maths were stronger or weaker than our results in art (or whatever). We knew who else in the class was gifted (or otherwise) in the subjects we excelled at, because of the points at which they got to spend time on self-directed projects.

I know. Life is competitive. We compete for the interests of the object of our fancy, we compete for the job we apply for. But making a leader board out of learning?

And don't tell me it doesn't happen any more. It does. Maybe not in your kids' school, or the school at which you teach, but it happens.

1 comment:

Joe Bower said...

Nice story. Thanks for sharing.

I do my best every day to keep competition away from my students' learning.

Success and learning should never be artificially scarce. And it sure as hell shouldn't be defined as something you have a better chance of experiencing as long as others don't get it.

When kid's see their own success as something dependent on others failure, things go bad. Very very bad.