Words of wisdom from across the pond.
By Leah K. Stewart
You know those fist-pumping speeches that invariably include the line, make this nation’s schooling the best in the world! Almost without exception we hear this wherever national schooling exists: US, UK, Canada, Australia…
Am I the only one who shudders at this wholly accepted rhetoric around competition? Does this really make sense?
You might say competition drives improvement! Or national pride is good. Yes! I wholeheartedly agree with both of these excellent points. But let’s explore what this means.
Would a world-class sprinter have any interest racing the nearest 30 people of the same age? We all know this race would be pointless, for our sprinter would probably thrash the competition without breaking a sweat. Then we have the runners forced to race when they have other interests and strengths. What a joyless experience for everyone involved!
When we push all students through the same exams, students, like our sprinters, are not challenged. Other students, shamed by their poor comparative performance, lose confidence, as they’re beaten in races they never chose to run. This, my friends, is how a system creates student disengagement.
Some people may argue that school exams are the basics! Are they though? Basics? Are you able to read what you want to read in your own time? Can you add and subtract numbers when you are ready?
Even when students ace exams its said it’s because the exams are too easy. Governments add hurdles–a wall, a ditch and monkey bars until our sprinters finally feel the pinch of failure in the name of rigorous assessment.
What did our sprinter need? Competition, yes! But not externally defined compulsory competition that ranks all who happen to share a birth year and geographic region the same way. Not competition designed to lead to failure.
Governments that want competition, better step back and let teachers support students in connecting with peers regionally, nationally and internationally. Let mathletes find mathematicians, writers find journalists, bands find musicians, and tinkerers find mechanics.
We love challenge! Competition emerges naturally as we connect with others who love what we love regardless of age, location, social status, gender, religion or any other defining factor. The internet is here now. Let us connect and you’ll see how we really compete.
Pride in yourself, your family, community, nation and humanity are all good things. When teachers must batch students through a career of hoops that lead to failure, our students are left with little time or energy to develop true self-pride.
School grades, certificates and prizes condition the idea that hoop-jumping is something to be proud of. This is empty. This system leads to stressed teachers calling students lazy, exasperated and parents bribing their children to learn. When the media plasters students supposed incompetence throughout the world and politicians shout about lost futures we must ask: Governments, don’t you see any fault in this system?
What if schools were places where students develop real personal pride by doing the difficult work of finding themselves, discovering a purpose, then learning and growing from there? Perhaps we’d see this pride of purpose filter to families, communities and, yes, to the nation. The best thing is it would not stop there. By doing this, we might even have a chance at discovering pride of purpose for humanity. Now, that would be something!
Schooling in my country is better than yours! This line never served us well. Is it not time to reach a higher level? Local, free and non-selective schools standing for self-selected competition and the search for true pride among nations–is this not what we all long for?
Leah K. Stewart (@LearntSchool) is on a mission to bring students and teachers together with this call Dear Governments, Trust Our Teachers! Leah is a Teaching Consultant and Public Speaker on Schooling from the Students Perspective from the U.K. leahkstewart.com.