Flattening the Bell Curve in School: Why Not Teach Winning Instead of Losing?
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest post by Rick Osbourne
In the classroom my question is, how would you go about creating a situation in which you’re mathematically guaranteed to have a few really good students at the top, a whole bunch of average students in the middle, and a handful of losers at the bottom? I suggest that you’d start at a very young age – say kindergarten – and pit all the kids against one another in a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly contest to see who will be the best “teacher pleaser.”
You’d give them stars and stickers which eventually turn into grades. You’d organize them into groups so that a few were members of the fast birds at the top, a bunch were members of the average birds in the middle, and a handful were members of the slow birds at the bottom.
By the time they’re in third or fourth grade it will become blatantly obvious to anyone who’s watching – especially the kids and their parents – that these kids have been systematically labeled (by teachers who are being paid to sort and label kids, despite the questionable reasons and criteria for doing so) as “gifted, average, and below average” in the hierarchy of the classroom. The entire affair is then made to look legitimate and scientific by plotting this mathematically predetermined phenomenon on what academicians call “the bell curve.”
In large measure the hierarchy that’s set in place during these early stages of education remains intact and is reinforced right on through high school graduation complete with the naming of a class valedictorian. The important thing of course is that most kids buy into the validity of this evaluative process so they know what to expect and what to accept in the wake of graduation.
In the Real World
When the real world takes over the gifted students will expect to be rewarded in extraordinary ways. The average students will expect to live average lives and be rewarded accordingly. While the losers will expect to hang on for dear life at the bottom of the societal hierarchy. And to question the authority/validity of this system is considered stupid, unpatriotic, or worse.
But none of this will be a surprise to anyone because we’ve all been systematically taught (i.e. indoctrinated) to expect the winners to win, the also-rans to meander around in the middle, and the losers to lose. In other words, done right, school sets the stage for what to expect in “the real world.” So don’t say we didn’t warn you…right?
Change the System and Improve the Results
Now let’s see what happens when we change the system so that it creates only winners in school. In other words, what happens when we refuse to pit Johnny against Jimmy, and Sallie against Susie? What happens when we focus completely on self-competition, and we define winning as becoming a little stronger (in all kinds of ways) this week than last week, a little stronger this month than last month, and a lot stronger this year than last year?
What do you suppose happens when we give every single student in class (and teachers too) the opportunity to win every single day of the school year starting from day one? What happens when every student in school gets a little stronger week after week, month after month, year after year, all the way through high school graduation?
What happens is that these kids will come frighteningly close to fulfilling their potentials in all kinds of ways. And if they fulfill their potential for 12 straight years they’ll be vastly more prepared to compete (and much harder to control) in the real world once that necessity /opportunity presents itself.
On the other hand, when you pit kids against kids right from the start, you teach most of them (all but the winners) to lose.* You also undermine their self-esteem, pierce their motivational bubbles, and cause them to shut down, stop trying. In the current system very few kids come remotely close to fulfilling their potential. Under current conditions most students are systematically rendered less prepared to compete (but easier to control) in the real world.
You Wouldn’t Have Losers
Under this new system you wouldn’t have a few at the top who expect to be treated better than everyone else. You wouldn’t have a handful at the bottom expecting to lose on a daily basis. And you wouldn’t have the vast majority in the middle who have been sold on the contention that they’re average, should expect nothing more than being average, and to accept it without question because trying to change the status quo is a wholesale waste of time.
You’d also improve academic performance, minimize the disruptive anti-social behavior, and the kids as well as the teachers (who currently live for the months of June, July, and August) will actually learn to enjoy the process of learning again.
And Best of All
And best of all, when they graduate from high school after 12 years of winning, they’ll expect to keep on winning. And they’ll accept nothing less when they hit the real world. And they’ll understand in a way that we don’t understand today, that society doesn’t have to be comprised of a few winners at the top, a bunch of also-rans in the middle, and a handful of losers at the bottom. In other words, if we change the school system we can change American society in a way that flattens the bell curve, and America will be all the stronger (and saner) for it.
*In the words of golf great Tiger Woods, “Second place is the first loser.”
Rick Osbourne is a former physical educator and a pioneer in the field of functional childhood obesity prevention. He currently serves as President of the Pull Your Own Weight Foundation which is an Illinois based, 501c3, not for profit organization whose focus is functional childhood obesity prevention. He’s written and published three books in this field, the latest of which is entitled Beating Childhood Obesity Now: A Simple Solution for Parents and Educators. He’s the Examiner’s national childhood obesity prevention correspondent. He writes an online column for The Edvocate. And you can connect with Rick via Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook.