Is academic competition a good thing?

Feb 06, 2016

Is academic competition a good thing?

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Flash of Silver…the leap that changed my world
Question #2
Rite of Passage Three –No Longer Alone-

Q. Are all the measurements of achievement really necessary? When marks (grades) and scores are removed, does achievement suffer, or is there a greater sense of self-worth?

I went from a highly regimented British public school (a curious name for a private school) to a Rudolf Steiner school called Michael Hall in Forest Row, Sussex, England.

Rudolf Steiner was a German educator who introduced a number of innovative ideas amongst which was…no marks or grades or position in class, none at all!

The difference this made in my young life was remarkable. I went from fear and failure to full acceptance for just who I was; without being measured or compared to any of my fellow students. I’m actually grinning to myself as I seek out the words to describe how wonderful it was to go to school and delight in learning.

At eleven years old I was placed in Ms. Dawson’s class with other youngsters of my age. They were a friendly lot who, for the most part, had been with Ms. Dawson since they were six and would stay with her until they were sixteen. Imagine, one teacher for ones whole school life. No need for measurement when you are that well known and cared for so consistently.

There were other ‘specialist’ teachers who helped us with other languages, woodworking, gardening and yes…knitting!

Michael Hall was co-educational; both boys and girls took every class –no his or her differentiation was made as to subject interest or proficiency…everyone got to ‘have a go’.

This extraordinary method even influenced the sports field where I introduced the game of Cricket. We didn’t score runs; we bowled and batted our way through lovely afternoons and no team ever won!

Just try tennis where you hit a ball back and forth for a fun half-hour.  It’s like a warm-up before a match that never starts.

I can almost hear the ‘Humph!” of disapproval from the legions of us that have endured competition as a way of “preparing us for the real world” where, like the salmon ‘smolt’ (a young salmon after the parr stage) in my story one either eats or gets eaten!

Surely that is what life is about…a daily contest between winners (1%) and relative losers (the rest of us?)

I was hugely grateful for the relief this brought to my life and my sense of self-worth.

I was happy with who I was in the midst of others who shared in the common joyful purpose of discovery.

So…what about now?

Talk about measurement!

We are told that true success begins in kindergarten, at 4-5 years old, where the games we play can shape us for the real world of even childhood.

Test, test, test…measure, measure, measure…all urged on with the grand prize of winning a scholarship to a great school that will almost guarantee you a favored place in the community of fellow ‘strivers’!

How good to be so measurably “bright” “talented” and “destined for success”.

How challenging to be near the bottom of the class and athletically “clumsy”?

But that’s the way that life is…right?

I like to think that Ms. Dawson’s acceptance of this Pubic School boy and her approval of my interest in trying to understand what she patiently taught us…was what fueled my lifelong pursuit of discoveryand how unimpressed I became of the “ratings” that would measure my later success on television.

I did that show because I loved it and the only opinion that really mattered was my wife Treena’s. Treena, who produced the show, gave me my very own, very private, “grade” for each program.

ROP 27 p.4

ROP 27 p.4

In a rather lovely way, she took over from Ms. Dawson.

You will meet Treena in my next blog. We fell in love at Michael Hall.

13 Comments

  1. Lynn Says: February 6, 2016 10:23 am

    Graham, there may not be enough space for me to “gush” about how wonderful and insightful this posting is in its focus. I am now retired (since 1992) from my years as an elementary classroom teacher. One of the reasons I went into that field as a career was not the competition in the system, as you expressed. I did hate it, though, and worked to soften it impact as I worked at discerning the talents in each student and helped them to recognize it in themselves and to shine. I cringed every time state tests were given – mostly because the tests were all based on “reading” and I had students that were so bright that I knew they understood and could pass the tests, but they were slow at reading and often did not have time to complete the “timed testing”. That is only one example.

    I grew up in a military family so we moved every year to a new school and that was an adjustment in itself. But I had a wonderful high school teacher who understood my shyness and – perhaps as your Treena did for you – began to see talent and more importantly, intrinsic value in me which she was able to foster as she built my confidence.. I went into teaching because of her influence; worked with younger children as it seemed most important to instill in them (as much as I could) their sense of value and worth in whatever ways I could discern it and help them discern it themselves!

    There is competition and “can you make the grade?” in our adult worlds, as well – no matter the paths we take. I believe, as you said, it is fostered going back to those very foundations in the school systems of grading and competition. How easily we each can fall into the comparion traps. It takes perseverance and faith in the One who instilled value and creativity within each of us – the God who “grades” only on a non-competitive love curve as we partner with Him to serve the world with the love and talents we have been given.

    How much we need this conversation you have begun to talk it through with others who may not understand yet – or understand and want others to melt into the joy of being all they were meant to be. No grading required to prove it.

    Thank you for this posting!
    Lynn

  2. Anne Says: February 6, 2016 11:55 am

    That’s a wonderful story. How fortunate you were to go to a Rudolf Steiner school. My sister’s grandchildren were educated at more than one Steiner school (due to moving) and have turned out to be wonderful, confident young people. We have a dreadful problem here in my state (and across the country) with mandatory statewide testing from the very early grades on and, what’s more, basing the teachers’ pay and bonuses on the test scores of their students. Everyone hates it; the teachers, the parents and the children but the legislators seem to think it’s the way to know if our tax dollars are working. It’s insane and has naturally led to the loss of many public school teachers who have stood against this and finally given up careers they loved. It’s one of the reason’s my daughter gave up teaching years ago because of her experience working in such a school where her six year old students were paralytic with fear. I’m glad that this system of constant measuring and comparing children was not in vogue when I was a student and a teacher.

  3. Jon Stevens Says: February 6, 2016 1:22 pm

    Well, Graham. You certainly know how to roll back the years! I went to a Rudolf Steiner school in New Hampshire (High Mowing School, Wilton, NH) for my 10th grade and then a Quaker school in Nevada City, CA for the last two. It was about like the Steiner school including no grades. And I had not thought of it like you presented it but I do agree that it was at the Steiner school my love of learning was fed and celebrated. I still know the poem I wrote to some obtuse metric…I’ll tell it to you some time…but it was the beginning of my golden years of learning to which I have returned now later in life.

    Competition is not Christian. I looked through the Bible once when on a sales trip, looking for what Jesus had to say about competition. I could only conclude He does not like it.”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” just is not good sales meeting material. Frankly, it ruined me as a salesman. But released me to become who and where I am now. And that is all for the good.

    So HORAY for freedom from grades! We know there are no hierarchies in heaven. Only the bliss of eternal learning…for the universe is expanding I hear.

    Your Friend in the Children’s Gardens of Mexico,
    Jon

  4. Hope Says: February 6, 2016 1:47 pm

    My boys can easily imagine the same teacher for 13 years – ME! Having educated all of my children at home, I can see the advantages of a learning environment which fosters a LOVE of learning. We have tailored our children’s education to fuel their strengths and improve their weak areas. I have insisted my boys learn public speaking and excellent writing skills. They have all, thus far, thanked me profusely later in life for these skills. Reading classic literature from a very young age has garnered them a rich vocabulary. They have been able to seek out internships and volunteer opportunities in their specific areas of interest. Another advantage has been their ability to be self-starters. By the age of 13 they are responsible to plan their school-week schedule, lessons, and projects. We engaged in regular co-op groups, which allowed them to prepare assignments and receive feedback from other adults. I didn’t give any grades until 7th grade and when preparing their high school transcripts. We did have them take standardized tests, on which they scored well above the national average. Our oldest has been on the Dean’s List at college and has been invited to join two National Honor Societies. He has come home from college and thanked me – repeatedly – for his primary and secondary school education.

  5. Laura Towers Says: February 6, 2016 3:20 pm

    I am a reading tutor, and I primarily work with dyslexic children. I often hear teachers and parents talk about where the child “should be” in comparison to others in the same grade. My approach is to meet each child where he or she is, and compare them only to themselves. Success should never be measured according to how well one does in comparison to others.

  6. Hope Says: February 6, 2016 7:10 pm

    Great conversation. I know several educators who taught in public school and have retired because of the excessive paperwork and an unhealthy focus on “teaching to a test”. We look at educators, John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, who both left the arena of education because they saw that a traditional classroom was not energizing students. I have read John Taylor Gatto’s book, “Dumbing Us Down”. In it, he speaks of education as putting children in a “box”, rewarding mediocrity, debilitating them, and encouraging them to require constant confirmation. These men believed that inherently children love to learn and, given the opportunity, will seek out information and knowledge. I have spoken professionally for many years to parents who are considering homeschooling. One of the first things I tell them is that they need to recognize how to ” Respect your child as an individual. Your child has been made by God with their own strengths, weaknesses, destiny, and life. Your child is not a carbon copy of you. Help them see those God-given strengths. Teach them independence. Show them how to find information that THEY want to know. You are your child’s facilitator.” Believe me, I have told MANY public school educators that they have my intense admiration. Having taught 4 absolutely unique individuals, I cannot imagine teaching a classroom of 25-30 students and striving to make each feel how special he or she is in the sight of God and to reach for their dreams. Kuddos to those of you who have taken on the challenge and I pray for God’s leading and wisdom as you make a difference in the lives of our children.

  7. Graham Kerr Says: February 6, 2016 9:05 pm

    Lynn, oh my! As I read through your very welcome response I came across your words, the ones you used as an aside, “perhaps as your Treena did for you”.

    Was that what happened, did she recognize something in me and encourage me, as Ms Dawson did in my grade free student days?

    A door has suddenly swung open and with it the cool breeze of truth. She did exactly as you said and continued to do so over the entire span of our relationship. There was a time when she was nominated in the Emmys as ‘Daytime Producer of the Year’. I was so pleased for her and tucked away my feelings that really I deserved some of the credit?

    Your aside made me wonder…did I really deserve some of her praise? Would I have ever begun to be whom I became known as being, had it not been for her early insistence?

    Famously she said. “You are the most unutterably boring man in all the world, and you need to do something about it!”

    “OK” I responded, “if you are so clever, why don’t you produce it!

    Before long…she did and I enjoyed being taught by the love of my life as she unearthed my hidden…talent?

    Yes, she did deserve the nomination, all of it.

    Thank you Lynn for turning the light on, this is what I had hoped might happen in sharing these blogs and my book, I just didn’t think it would be for me!

  8. Jean N Sozio Says: February 7, 2016 12:19 am

    Thank God for home schooling. We did not have this option when I was school age. My husband suffered the same turbulence you did. He was (and is) very talented and gifted creatively but this is not measured or graded yet is the backbone of his success as a strong, resilient, loving, caring, creative, precious giving human being. There is a poem called “Desiderata” that has always encouraged me when I needed assurance. One of the best lines in that poem that has always grounded me in confidence is: “there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself” and “you are no less that the trees and the stars – you have a right to be here”. Knowing your purpose (perhaps “a small thing”) and doing it well – as well as YOU can – is your best measurement.

  9. Jean N Sozio Says: February 7, 2016 12:24 am

    P.S. Happy Birthday !! I love age. To me each birthday is a victory – an academy award – I made it – again and again and again. Keep ’em coming. Keep celebrating – keep rejoicing.

  10. Lynn Says: February 8, 2016 2:20 am

    Hope and Graham – these really ARE conversations! Oh – how i crave such exchanges. I am glad I hopped back over here to read others sharing from their experiences.

    I LOVED teaching. Did God ever direct me right where I belonged. And it was in the public school systems. Over the years I’d hear from well meaning people who would question why, being the Christian that I am, why I’d not be teaching in a Christian school. All I could say is that is not where He led me (except for one year in the late 60s when I worked in Washington, D.C. and ended up in a parochial school teaching 45 first graders (gulp!) and that was not my initial grade level but I learned that I LOVED teaching that age group and am still in touch with a couple of students from those years. I digress. Conversations can do that. Right?

    Over my year of teaching, I had so many Christian families with students in my class who could not homeschool or afford private school and they were so grateful for the Christian teachers who had chosen to be right where their children needed that influence.
    I must add that the time period when I taught was back a ways when the harsher focus on state tests that Anne spoke to was not so much the focus. I had colleagues who remained in teaching after I needed to take a somewhat early retirement and it was shortly after that that they began “collapsing over their plan books” as piece by piece they had to push aside great content to “teach to the tests” so that the State could get more money and/or prove how good ( or bad ) a job the TEACHERS were doing. I was told often I’d not be able to teach as I “had” and the more I heard, the more I understood and as much as I missed teaching, I was sadder to hear why I would not have been able to teach as I once did.

    For those who can homeschool ( or be in such a setting as Graham and Jon experienced ) – Praise God. To be able to know that you ( Hope ) have been teacher both as a parent to your children and also a more formal “teacher” has to be such a feeling of great fulfillment.

  11. Lynn Says: February 8, 2016 2:40 am

    Graham – it seems a given in observing from afar, at intermittent times, the great love you and Treena had ( and fostered) over the precious 60 years that God gave to you both. When you share about her “lively” exhortation to do something about your being so boring ( really?) I’d say you both passed the “test” at leaving that behind and a non-issue!!

    I have always believed that the truest of marriages ( surely not without their trials ) are ones where life is created. For many it may not necessarily be the privilege of creating human life by having children, but with one another – one can draw out what is the best of another and foster it ( much as we have been talking about building the sense of God’s value instilled in children as they grow during their school years). And is that not what Christ did as He modeled how we are to live? He found the lost and marginalized – the ones who would never have passed the “state tests” of their days – and brought them to Life and helped them to begin seeing themselves through His eyes. That same gift is entrusted to us by Him to be used as we interact with all His children: young and the “not so young”!!

  12. Graham Says: February 8, 2016 8:03 am

    Lynn, Oh my! As I read through your very welcome response I came across your words, the ones you used as an aside, ” perhaps as your Treena did for you”.

    Was that what happened, did she recognize something in me and encourage me, as Ms Dawson did in my grade free student days? .

    A door has suddenly swung open and with it the cool breeze of truth. She did exactly as you said and continued to do so over the entire span of our relationship. There was a time when she was nominated in the Emmys as ‘Daytime Producer of the Year’. I was so pleased for her and tucked away my feelings that really I deserved some of the credit?

    Your aside made me wonder …did I really deserve some of her praise? Would I have ever begun to be whom I became known as being, had it not been for her early insistence?
    Famously she said. “You are the most unutterably boring man in all the world, and you need to do something about it!”
    “OK” I responded, “if you are so clever, why don’t you produce it!
    Before long..she did and I enjoyed being taught by the love of my life as she unearthed my hidden….talent?
    Yes , she did deserve the nomination, all of it.
    Thank you Lynn for turning the light on, this is what I had hoped might happen in sharing these blogs and my book, I just didn’t think it would be for me!

  13. Mitchell B Mahony Says: February 8, 2016 7:48 pm

    When I was in Kindergarten here in the US, my teacher at first thought I was retarded. There was structure but I didn’t quite understand it. I would want (and even succeeded at times) to do ‘my own thing’. Eventually I realized I was ADD, but they didn’t call it that in the 60’s. Back then they called it “Being disruptive”. Back then we went to K’garten 1/2 day. Two classmates each week were selected to bring in graham crackers or some such. This was to go with our carton of milk that we had each day. We had to pay for the milk by purchasing a ‘milk card’. It had 20 punches on it and since milk was 5cents then, they cost $1 and lasted almost a month. Of course if someone was absent, their card didn’t get punched. So over time the cards compared to each other would be ‘lopsided’. And when the card got its 20th punch, one was expected to bring in another dollar for the next card. Well, one day early in the school year, probably late November or early December, I went up to the teacher and told her she had ordered too many milks. I had memorized the roll and who had so many punches left on their cards. And since so and so and so and so were absent and since so and so hadn’t purchased a new milk card, she had ordered 3 too many milks. She patted my little head and said “that’s nice, go back and play” or some such. A few minutes later, she bolt right sat up. She then went through the roll and then the milk cards and then promptly called the office to cancel 3 milks. That afternoon, my Mom got a call from the principal. I was to be scheduled with the County school psychologist. They thought I was a genius. After two days of testing at the County’s expense, the Dr called my parents into his office. “I have good news. Your son is NOT a genius.” Obviously I was very bright. My ADD went unchecked for another year and a half. My 2nd grade teacher realized that the general curriculum was too boring for me. So she sat me down with some recorded lessons, a head set and the workbook. For some reason this info was not passed on to the rest of the school so for the rest of my Elementary school career, I was labeled, “Disruptive”. It was around this time that when I was sick or during the summer I discovered a crazy cooking show on our local channel, you may have heard of it. “The Galloping Gourmet”. My Mom had just gotten me interested in cooking (we enjoyed the show together). I had tried to tell her it was “girls’ work”. But she took me to the library and I learned about Auguste Escoffier. So, many years later, when I went to the CIA for a one week hands on cooking seminar, they asked me, who was the biggest influence on my interest in culinary arts. I said “There are three actually…”. They said, “You need to narrow it down to one.” “Well, it’s three. My Mom, Escoffier and Graham Kerr. He let me know that cooking could be FUN!”
    P.S. I also enjoyed the Mini-Max series.

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