Guest Post: Ed Johnson, Advocate for Quality Public Education, Atlanta, Georgia.
On the day after the massacre of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, CT, a group of advocates for improving education in Georgia received a letter from Ed Johnson. He introduced the letter with the following statement:
The original of the following open letter of mine was first addressed to then-First Lady Laura Bush on June 9, 2003. Given the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT, I am now addressing a slightly revised version of it to President Obama. The hope is to prompt asking how might excessive and inappropriate competition, including the Race to the Top Competition, contribute to undermining civility and democratic ideals in service to the common or public good.
December 14, 2012
President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
“Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others.”
Dear Mr. President:
Some years ago I once accepted an invitation to be a judge in a local middle school’s Social Science Fair Contest. Wanting to know what I had gotten myself into, I made it a point to review the 30 or so student entries on display well before the judging got underway. To my surprise, I found each entry’s content noteworthy, in spite of a few grease spots here and there. Each entry stood as “a class act,” I said to a teacher nearby. Pleased, the teacher repeated my comment to other teachers.
Soon after the judging got underway, an odd uneasiness formed in my gut. For some reason I could not state at the time, I was fretting having to contribute to judging one entry “First Place Winner,” one entry “Second Place Winner,” and one entry “Third Place Winner.” The day after the contest the odd uneasiness in the gut gave way to this nagging question: What wisdom was there in deliberately making losers of so many children?
Sometimes we are fortunate to encounter opportunities that allow us to examine our values and the things we do and hold dear. In the face of such opportunities we will either defend our values or, with eyes wide open and ears clicked on, attempt to learn and develop and change for the better.
That day, the Social Science Fair Contest opened my eyes and forced my ears on so that I might experience learning competition among youngsters in a new, revealing way. I suspect it was the unmistakable expressions of dejection on the faces of the contest losers that made me see and hear differently. Even the second and third place winners strained to put on a happy face, which showed me they, too, saw themselves as losers. Moreover, I plainly saw that the “First Place Winner” had attained recognition at the expense of all the other contestants, a God-awful lesson for a child to learn about learning and, perhaps more importantly, to learn to see other human beings as obstacles to personal success.
Overall, I saw the event as that of adults inculcating within children the adults’ win-lose values based seemingly on the belief system that even in school, as in life elsewhere, there must be winners and losers, that a few children deserve to win and most children deserve to lose.
Left wondering how many potential social scientists I had helped derail that day, I reluctantly took responsibility for my part in the competition then asked my inner being for forgiveness. In the end, that day was a day of personal transformation. Consequently, I vowed to advocate against and never again be a party to events that aim to turn kids into losers through arbitrary and capricious competition.
Case in point: a recent year’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and legacy featured middle school children in a “Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Writing Contest.” Where is the wisdom in turning the many children into essay writing losers in the name of Dr. King? I suggest there is none. When did Dr. King ever stand to make anybody a loser? I suggest he never did. An Essay Writing Collaboration in which every student would aim to contribute to every other student’s success and joy in writing would have been a far more fitting celebration of Dr. King’s birth and legacy.
Legislators, Boards of Education, and top school administrators must come to examine their contributions to the nearly imperceptible yet continual demoralization of K-12 school students by way of learning competition. A very real unintended consequence is the near complete destruction of children’s intrinsic motivation for learning in school. To protect themselves, if only in their own eyes, many kids will drop out of school or commit violent acts rather than submit to loser status.
Once they have destroyed children’s intrinsic motivation and trust in school sufficiently, albeit unintentionally, educational leaders have only extrinsic motivators — ironically, more competition, reward programs, motivational speakers, role models, school reform, high expectations, zero tolerance, accountability, etc. — to address the problem.
Heavy reliance upon extrinsic motivation reflects a failure to understand that children were born motivated to learn. To see this, go get an infant, anybody’s. Then risk blindness by peering deep into the fire in child’s eyes. Wonderfully amazing, those neurons firing!
Educational leaders need only learn what the educational systems for which they are responsible have been doing to gradually put out the inborn fire in children’s eyes and stop doing it. Hence, high on educational leaders’ list of obnoxious utterances should be “every child can learn” and such. Of course, every child can learn. That should never be an issue.
On the one hand, invariably, the few winner kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to perpetuate win-lose behavior as normal behavior, the way the “real world” works.
On the other hand, invariably, the many loser kids who grow up mostly on extrinsic motivation will learn to take on self-protective behaviors generally not conducive to anybody’s well being, including their own. The continuing epidemic of school shootings exemplifies this behavior, in the extreme.
Contrary to popular opinion, the many school shootings have not been random acts of violence; they have been normal acts of violence, built into educational systems that encourage win-lose behavior, especially success at the expense of others. Neither have the many school shootings been senseless violence; in each case, the shooter acted quite rationally in devising and carrying out a plan to “win.” Thus it is quite silly to continue blaming parents and teachers and otherwise holding them accountable for the damage being done to children by our educational system itself that reflects adults’ win-lose value system, however benignly or well-intentioned.
An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published a while back, opined: “Responsibility for education should rest with the parents.” As supporting evidence, the article’s author related: “[A parent] was commenting after [the parent's son, 13,] defeated 100 other contestants from across the state to win the Georgia Geography Bee ….”
Now, how many once budding geographers, geologists, and maybe lexicographers have since turned their interests elsewhere in order to shake off the “loser” label bestowed upon them during the pursuit of just one winner?
The author’s words can be revealing. Cut away the context words then some of the win-lose thematic words that exemplify the scourge upon K-12 education, public and otherwise, become clear. “Defeated.” “Contestants.” “Win.” These are concepts and behaviors about competition imposed upon students by the educational system itself. These are concepts and behaviors for producing far too few winners and far too many losers, by design. These are concepts and behaviors that reflect the value system whereby children, of all people, must be beaten down and demoralized before being deemed worthy to rise. Nonsense.
Clearly, today’s world demands as many winners as possible, not a many losers as possible. By managing them as athletic-style competitions with attendant rankings and such, our K-12 educational systems cannot possibly help produce the many winners the world needs.
Has our emphasis on competition and winning races, titles and medals, created a culture that is conducive to an uncivil, undemocratic, and violent society?Tags: competition, Ed Johnson, Educational Systems, Motivation, School Shooting