Sunday, January 15, 2012

The folly of artificial and arbitrary recognition

I used to teach at a school that had a tradition around Thanksgiving. Every kid in the school was encouraged to run or walk around the school yard perimeter with their peers. We called it the Turkey Trot.

In the early years, we would record the times of the students as they crossed the finish line. It was deemed by someone that every student who finished the race inside of 10 minutes would receive 10% bonus on their physical education report card grade. The student who finished under 10 minutes were eligible to have their name placed in a draw for all sorts of prizes, ranging from free turkeys, movie passes, frisbees and assorted gift cards. The top three boys and three girls from each grade level were also identified and paraded in front of the entire population of the school.

All this was done, following the run, in an awards ceremony in the school's gymnasium for the entire school to see.

As I developed professionally and gained a more sophisticated understanding for the damaging effects of pitting children against each other in an attempt to win artificially scarce awards, I engaged in conversations with my peers about how we could improve the Turkey Trot.

If you were to ask any staff member why we were doing the Turkey Trot, most would have said something like this:
It's healthy to get outside and be active.
Over the years, I started to see a disturbing trend. Some students were very excited to participate while others were very turned off by the whole affair. Some of the keeners couldn't wait to run, while others were willing to risk skipping school, pretending to be ill, or even begged to do their homework in the library. "Just don't make me do the Turkey Trot," they would plead.

Upon closer inspection, I was able to categorize these two kinds of students:
The excited students thought they had a chance at winning. The avoiders thought they had no chance.
Through many conversations, I was able to convince my colleagues to allow all children who participated in the Turkey Trot to be eligible for the prizes and drop the 10% bonus. In short, I was able to convince them that these extrinsic motivators and manipulators were not why we wanted to encourage children to participate in an outdoor, fun run.

When we made these changes, it became a lot easier to honestly say to kids:
This isn't about winning or losing. It's about trying your best, whatever that looks like.
All was well, until one year someone was cleaning out the storage areas of the school and came across a whole bunch of very old, very lame hats. They were like the 1980s gas station ball caps you can find at garage sales for a nickel. I think they even had a pom pom on the top. The school didn't want them, so someone decided to give them away to the boys and girls that finished in the top three for their grade level.

Sounds harmless, right?

Maybe not.

Imagine this. While the top three boys and girls for each grade level finished their run, they eagerly took their hats. While the entire population of the school sat down in the gymnasium for the prize draws, there were two categories of students: the hats and the hatless.

As fast as they could be handed out, the hats became valuable status symbols. Having a hat allowed the students to elevate and separate themselves from the crowd. They were the winners; everyone else was... well, just everyone else, but not quite as good.

As I looked on, I could see clearly what we had done. I leaned over to a colleague and asked them to look at the crowd and tell me what they saw. At first, they didn't notice anything but a gym full of our students, but after a moment they too could see that by passing out hats to only a select few, the students were able to rank and sort themselves.

Don't get me wrong. Those who passed out the hats had no malice intent. In fact, I would go so far as to say they had the best of intentions, but as the old saying goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." My point here is that we need to be acutely aware of the unintended consequences that accompany our simplest actions. In this context, passing out an artificially scarce number of hats to an arbitrary number of students creates a kind of caste system. Keep in mind that the latin root of caste is castus which means "pure, cut off, segregated"and is etymologically related to carere which means "to cut off".

If we can agree that public education is for everyone and that competition is for the strong, then we have no business creating learning environments that are built on exclusion.

It's important to note that when the students exited the gymnasium, almost every single one of the hats were either left on the floor or placed in the garbage. Because their purpose as a status symbol had expired, there was no reason to continue wearing the hats.

After all, they were awfully lame.


  1. This may be an extreme example, but in the movie, The Wave, based on a true story, a teacher re-creates Nazi Germany in the classroom by getting his students to conform to a new and unique community -- at least that's what they believe. They behave differently and ultimately wear badges on their arms that identify them as part of this special group. Only after weeks of perceived superiority do the kids learn a valuable lesson.

    I'm glad your students left the hats on the floor. Perhaps they learned the lesson much more quickly.

  2. Mark Barnes, your story reminds me of a video we watched in Social Studies about the "Brown Eyes Blue Eyes" experiment done by a Grade 3 teacher.

    On the first day of the experiment, the Grade 3 teacher told the class that people with one of those eye colours (I can't remember exactly, I think it was blue eyes) was superior to people with the other. She also said that brown-eyed students weren't allowed to play with blue-eyed students and so on. During that day, the students with blue eyes performed better than the brown-eyed students overall.

    The next day, the roles were reversed, and the brown-eyed students performed better than the blue-eyed students.

    At the end of the day, the teacher spoke to the class about racism and how skin colour, like eye colour, don't really matter and no colour is better than another. Then everyone had a big group hug and resolved never to exclude anyone for trivial reasons again.

  3. I'm actually glad that my school never had anything as stupid as the TurkeyTrot. The closest we do come, however, is the Terry Fox run in which we're the ones earning the profits. I've always hated the segregation that comes with physical activity taught in schools.


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