Tuesday, December 15, 2020

What if Being Good at Things Wasn't the Point of Doing Them?


Our daughter played on a middle school soccer team in a league that didn't believe in keeping score. The kids, of course, simply kept score themselves, always knowing in the end who had won and who had lost. They knew that not keeping score wasn't part of the real world and they mocked the charade.

That said, her team was not very good, losing all of their matches, often by double digits. The girls were aware of this and mocked that too. I played on losing sports teams as a boy. Adults would try to buck us up, to assure us that today was our day, that we possessed the talent to win and we would win if we just stuck to it. They assumed that we must be down in the dumps from all the losing, but I don't recall feeling that way. Sure, I would have preferred to win, I suppose, but more important was getting together with my buddies and playing baseball or football or basketball. The camaraderie was everything and I saw that with our daughter and her friends. They loved playing bad soccer together, even as we adults worried about their self-esteem.

We ought not to have worried, of course, but it's hard. We live in a culture that emphasizes winning. It's not enough to be good at something, let alone to merely dabble in it. One must strive to be best and when someone falls short, we think, it must have shame attached to it. In school, we grade our children, ranking them according to how well they do some on some arbitrary thing like math or spelling or self-control. Indeed, our schools are in many ways set up as judgement factories. What else is this fear of "falling behind" all about if not winning and losing? Why else is failing the worst thing you can do? How else to you explain adults telling children, "You can do better." It's so embedded in our mentality that many of us can't image education without the competition.

Author Kurt Vonnegut told this story: "When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of 'getting to know you' questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What's your favorite subject? And I told him, 'No, I don't play any sports. I do theater, I'm in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.'

"And he went, 'Wow, that's amazing!' And I said, 'Oh no, but I'm not good at any of them.'

"And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: 'I don't think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you've got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.'"

What if, as educators, we were all free to take this approach? What if the point wasn't being good at things and rather simply doing them? What if we stopped keeping score? What if the goal wasn't creating winners, but rather interesting people? 

"And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn't been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could 'win' at them."

What if we understood education this way?

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Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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