9 November 2013

Ranking Children to Encourage Success

This post considers a recent article on theconversation.com about children's classroom ranks and later successes. I suggest a changed perspective may ensure these findings are used for the disadvantaged children's benefit. Just as John Perry shows in The Art of Procrastination, (institutional) flaws may be used to general advantage if recognised and accepted.

EDIT: In the interests of intellectual honesty, I will not delete this post or amend it because it reflects my thoughts when I wrote it. However, I aim to extend the ideas covered in this post in another essay. This is for two reasons. First, ranking children is ethically questionable at best. Second, subsequent research in this area has changed my opinion; and I am now sceptical about the very idea of praise itself. These (or the second at least) ideas will be explained in more detail in another post. I will create a link to that post when it is written.

1. The Research

The considered article is called 'High achieving students are better off in worse schools' (Josephine Lethbridge 2013) and reflects on new research at LSE, 'The Importance of Rank Position' (Richard Murphy and Felix Weinhardt 2013). The idea is that students who rank in the top half are more likely to excel in later school years. The higher the child's position the better. Below half way, however, the differences between children's test scores (now and later) are miniscule. Boys are affected more than girls, apparently.

There seems to me scope within primary (5–11 yrs) and secondary (11–16 yrs) education to use this idea for improvements. This, however, may need educational thinking and subject boundaries radically to change. My suggestion--and though I cannot find a source, I am fairly certain I've heard this or a similar idea elsewhere--is to instigate a change whereby every child is praised for being in the top percentiles for something.

2. (Personal) Anecdotal Evidence

In school I must have been (I cannot recall any published rankings but one seems to know who got better or worse test results) about average in each subject. My English and Religious Studies results were poor compared to my Art and Product Design results. Until the final GCSE results, my class performance in English definitely placed me in my class' lower half.

This led me, for a while, to think I was better at the latter and hopeless at the former. Now, though, I enjoy English literature, read philosophy for fun, and have not painted for a long time. In fact, I aim towards a career in words and writing.

I may be an anomaly, but Murphy and Weinhardt's research seems to fit my story: being ranked in the upper echelons for one subject may be the reason I am confident enough to dream and achieve in other subjects today. It does not matter that my early 'successes' were not in the field I love now, only that I was encouraged to achieve in something. (It is impossible to be conclusive. I simply relate my experience to illustrate the issue.)

3. To Support Reform…

Perry suggests procrastinators structure tasks so minor ones are completed in an attempt to avoid important ones. Fusing this with Murphy and Weinhardt's findings, I believe it is possible to design curricula to ensure every student in at least one subject is ranked in the top half.

I disagree with those who would accuse this idea as lefty-liberal or softy-softy. Such curricula would not require results-doctoring to create a facade of success for underachievers:
  1. 'Underachiever' is a relevant label only in a system that suppresses children's natural talents because they do not conform with contemporary ideals of success; and
  2. In a system designed to create opportunities for children to be praised, every child can have the opportunity to achieve in something.
I write this with an obvious disclaimer in mind. If educational thinking and (national) curricula do not promote encouragement (ie and remain subject-focussed), the whole idea would be undermined by artificial rankings that disregarded results to place every child in the upper half of at least one list.

'Subject-focussed' refers to the traditional national curriculum separated by subjects. Such boundaries do not seem overly concerned with praising norm-shattering creativity.

4. Conclusion

I have, throughout, inferred that 'high ranking' is synonymous with 'being encouraged'. Considering Murphy and Weinhardt's research, this is appropriate. If students who rank well are encouraged to achieve success later, the two ideas are related.

It is time, I think, to engage fully with the idea that every child deserves encouragement and its subsequent advantages. Even if that requires massive reform. If so much weighs on early success (and it does), the social benefits are worth whatever effort is necessary.

The effort to begin this revolution is small. The only thing required is a shift in thinking: students who favour vocational subjects (and I use 'vocational' broadly, here, to include PE, Art, Construction, etc) should be praised--socially--as much as those who favour academic subjects.

Either way, every child deserves respect. It is sensible to allow that respect to manifest as taking children's talents and creativity seriously. And this taking seriously will be facilitated by a system that provides for the recognition of children's abilities in something.

5. Postscripts

PS I hope the personal anecdote is not read as an arrogant claim that I am the best at law or English--such a claim is nonsensical. The aim is only to show that early encouragement leads to the self-confidence required to aim to succeed.

PPS It is difficult to write about radical educational theories without sounding like a conspiracy nut. For those interested in work that sounds radical and sensible, Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society is a good.

Created: 9 November 2013. Version 1.1: 12 December 2013.

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