Rigged Games (or, Why strengths-based learning, Part 3)

Alfie Kohn, one of the great provocateurs in education, recently suggested this thought experiment:

“Suppose that next year virtually every student passed the tests. What would the reaction be from politicians, businesspeople, the media? Would these people shake their heads in admiration and say, ‘Damn, those teachers must be good!’

“Of course not. Such remarkable success would be cited as evidence that the tests were too easy. In the real world, when scores have improved sharply, this has indeed been the reaction. For example, when results on New York’s math exam rose in 2009, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents said, ‘What today’s scores tell me is not that we should be celebrating,’ but instead ‘that New York State needs to raise its standards.’”

According to certain people, some kids are inherently smarter than others, and some kids just don’t have what it takes to learn—no matter what. For such thinkers, grades are a helpful sorting mechanism.

“Grades in this view should be used to announce who’s beating whom. And if the students in question have already been sorted by the admissions process, well, they ought to be sorted again. A school’s ultimate mission, apparently, is not to help everyone learn but to rig the game so that there will always be losers.”

Other folks know (from experience) that ordinary kids are capable of doing extraordinary things when given the chance to use their natural strengths. For these people, grades (and especially class rankings) artificially create “excellence scarcity.”

Is your school’s mission to “rig the game so that there will always be losers”?

Or is your school’s mission to demonstrate the truth that every kid is capable of extraordinary things?


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Christian Talbot