Much of what Seth Godin blogs about is food for thought, but every now and again he writes something that really strikes a chord with me and I need to put it in context. His recent piece on The wasteful fraud of sorting for youth meritocracy is just such a piece. He takes up a conversation that seems to be gaining more attention as we question the purpose of school and how we approach learning for students, both in and out of school. In part, I am drawn to the post because I nod my head in agreement while reading it and, in part, because it really challenges all of the structures we have created around schools.
Godin argues students are being taught our world is one in which people are picked based on performance. When it comes to activities like school sports and music, those running the programs might point out “that their job is to win, to put on a great show, to entertain the parents with the best performance they can create.”
Godin challenges this and asks:
What if we celebrated the students who regularly try the hardest, help each other the most and lead? What if we fast tracked those students and made it clear to anyone else willing to adopt those attitudes that they could be celebrated too?
What if you got cast, tracked or made the cut because you were resilient, hard-working and willing to set yourself up for a cycle of continuous improvement? Isn’t that more important than rewarding the kid who never passes but still scores a lot of goals?
We do try to do this, and it seems we are trying harder now than even a decade ago. More and more, students are being compared and sorted on past performances rather than with of the students who sit next to them in class. Of course, old habits are difficult to break. No matter how much we say as teachers and parents we value the work habits as much as the letter grades (or even more), our eyes quickly scan to the A and B grades before looking at the G and S grades.
And just what is this system doing? Godin says:
If you get ahead for years and years because you got dealt good cards, it’s not particularly likely that you will learn that in the real world, achievement is based as much on attitude and effort as it is on natural advantages. In the real world, Nobel prizes and Broadway roles and the senior VP job go to people who have figured out how to care, how to show up, how to be open to new experiences. Our culture is built around connection and charisma and learning and the ability to not quit in precisely the right moments.
This is challenging stuff. I am reminded of Mike McKay’s question, “When will what we know change what we do?” While we know what Godin says to be true, we are very slow to change our system. We (me included) like many of our school rituals — from the music concerts to sports matches — showcase the students we feel are the most talented.
Godin’s final challenge, “What is school for?” is like this piece on sorting, a great conversation starter.