Today I received an email from a parent who used to be at S and J’s school, but who took her child out of the school because they were unhappy there. She brought up an aspect of the school environment which Jung and I had not considered, but in retrospect seems so obvious to me that I can’t believe we missed it: academic competitiveness. S and J’s school prides itself on the strength of its academic program. This is part of what prompted Jung and me to fight for a more balanced education, one where the whole person is valued and educated, not just the portion above the neck. What didn’t occur to either of us was that because the students feel pressure to perform at a very high level academically, this fostered an environment of academic competitiveness. As a result, the children couldn’t view each other as friends, but rather many of them have become “frenemies” in the words of the parent whose child left the school.
Even if this pressure to perform is coming solely from the parents, at the end of the day it is up to the school to decide if it wants a cooperative environment where everyone helps each other to perform to the best of their abilities, or a competitive environment where, along with trying to do well, the students try to pull each other down so that they will look better in comparison.
This insight which the former member of our school community offered to me answered a question that has been eating at me for months: why is it, at a school which appears to value academic excellence above all else, the students who do well are ridiculed?
Now I know the answer. The students who denigrate their classmates’ success do so out of fear. Pressured students cannot celebrate the successes of others when it highlights the fact that they did not do as well. Pressured students give each other an elbow in the ribs instead of a pat on the back as pay-back for what is going to happen to them when they go home and their parents demand to know why Suzy or Johnny got an A and they didn’t. Teasing and ridiculing those who do well might make the high performers do a little less well the next time, and that helps the less-well-performing student. If the teasing and ridiculing doesn’t lower the performance of the high performers, then at least the teasing and ridiculing has given the pressured students a little satisfaction to offset the tongue lashing they will receive at home.
Jung and I have always looked at grades like indicator lights on the dashboard. If the grades seem low, then something may be awry and we want to diagnose the problem. If the grades are higher than normal, then something is working really well for that child, and we want to know what it is so we can do more of it! Either way, we see the grades as the result of a whole system: teachers’ subjective evaluation, quality of instruction, school environment, understanding of the material, study habits, organization and parental oversight, as well as children’s ability and interest in the subject matter. The grades are a guide for us, helping us to help our children learn and grow. All in all, we’ve always considered grades to be an imperfect and incomplete guide, so we limit how much weight we give them.
Our attitude about academic competitiveness may be an area where we simply disagree with our school community. When I think of specific classmates of S and J who appear to be under pressure from their parents to “get good grades,” I think the pressure could be hurting those students’ performance more than helping it. Rather than being told to “get good grades,” I’d like to see teachers and parents encourage these students to experiment and discover their own ideal learning style. I’d like it to be impressed on the students that the traditional classroom model suits some better than others regardless of raw academic capability. I’d like to see the students surprised at their own performance when they are taught in a way which is in tune with their own genius.
I am convinced that school environments which are focused on academic competitiveness for individual success will leave our children ill-prepared for our increasingly cooperative and interdependent world. We have an opportunity to modernize our educational system now so that our children will have the skills, practice and mindset they need not only to succeed in the world of the 2020s, but to thrive solving the challenges which will await them.
Look around you and ask yourself, does the world need more lone wolves striving and competing for their own success over that of others, or more skilled co-creators who know how to collaborate to combine everyone’s strengths towards a common goal? We need to start now to teach our children how to become these co-creators for their sake, and for the sake of our species.