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kottke.org posts about Alfie Kohn

Rating vs Ranking and the Forced Scarcity of American Excellence

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2019

In an expanded version of his NY Times’ piece Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?, Alfie Kohn asks Can Everyone Be Excellent? In the piece, he criticizes our educational system’s practice of ranking students against each other instead of evaluating whether or not they’ve meaningfully improved or successfully learned anything.

But our little thought experiment uncovers a truth that extends well beyond what has been done to our schools in the name of “raising the bar” (a phrase, incidentally, that seems to have originated in the world of show horses). We have been taught to respond with suspicion whenever all members of a defined group are successful. That’s true even when we have no reason to believe that corners have been cut, or that the bar was suspiciously low. In America excellence is treated as an inherently scarce commodity.

Thus, rather than cheering when many people manage to do something well, we’re likely to dismiss that result as meaningless and maybe even mutter darkly about “falling standards” or “being content with mediocrity.” Success seems to matter only if it is attained by a few, and one way to ensure that outcome is to evaluate people (or schools, or companies, or countries) relative to each other. That way, even if everyone has done quite well, or improved over time, half will always fall below the median — and look like failures.

Kohn also touches on the competition inherent in our schools and youth sports:

Reframing excellence in competitive terms can’t be defended on the grounds that setting people against one another leads to improvement in their performance. Indeed, a surprisingly consistent body of social science evidence shows that competition tends to hold us back from doing our best - particularly in comparison with cooperation, in which people work with, not against, each other. Rather, excellence has been defined — for ideological reasons — as something that can’t be reached by everyone.

For the past year or so, my kids and I have been playing Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. It’s a cooperative game where the players build up individual decks of cards to collectively defeat increasingly difficult villains. I was a bit skeptical of it at first — it seemed a little tedious — but all of us grew to love the collaborative aspect of it. Instead of each of us competing to figure out the best tactics to defeat one another, we’ve had to work together on the best strategies, with long discussions in particularly tough circumstances yielding some of the best lessons. We learned that sometimes the best play for the individual is not the best play for the team. We celebrated our successes and licked our wounds together. As a result, I feel like we all know the game inside and out, better than if we’d been playing a competitive game.