Winners and Losers

“People who hold important positions in society are commonly labelled "somebodies," and their inverse "nobodies"-both of which are, of course, nonsensical descriptors, for we are all, by necessity, individuals with distinct identities and comparable claims on existence. Such words are nevertheless an apt vehicle for conveying the disparate treatment accorded to different groups. Those without status are all but invisible: they are treated brusquely by others, their complexities trampled upon and their singularities ignored.”

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

The traditional school model is designed to ensure that some students are winners and others are losers. Grading on the curve is a perfect example of this mentality. By design, some students get As and others get Fs. Proponents of this approach argue that this is preparation for life, where it’s all about winners and losers. And, at one level, that may seem to be a realistic perspective.

But is it really? I don’t think so. Once we remove the bonds of the K-12 school system and the requirements to learn the standardized content, we begin to find our way in the world. And, to do that we consider what we are good at…our strengths. We consider our passions and opportunities, as well. What we don’t do, though, is say “I’m really not very good in math, so I think I will be an accountant.” Instead, we say “I’m good in art and I like to design things, so I think I’ll go into graphic design.” Or, “I really like to study the weather and I’m good in science, so meteorology sounds like a good career path for me.” The point is, in the real world, we can all be winners by leveraging our strengths and pursuing those things we are passionate about.

Schools that continue to insist on a system of winners and losers, then, are doing students a disservice. Sure, everyone hits some bumps in the road and students need to develop perseverance, but promoting stick-to-it-iveness is different than insisting that the “school of hard knocks” is good for kids. It isn’t.

In a mastery-driven personal learning system that is strengths-based, students all build a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy, but they might not all do it in the same amount of time. They can then focus on developing their strengths while shoring up any weaker areas that they need for their personal goals, but let’s be honest, not every graduate needs Algebra II to be successful in life. Binomials, trinomials, polynomials, recursive functions, and quadratic equations aren’t requirements for all career paths.

Greatness comes from developing personal talents and turning them into strengths. To be a great society, we must develop greatness in all of our children. For this to happen, schools need to shift the focus from deficit-based to strengths based and support this with a mastery-driven, competency-based approach. Chris Wejr says it really well in this video:


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