A Teacher’s View of the Olympics
I’ve been puzzling over why the Olympics are depressing me. When I was a kid, I loved them. I was 9 when Nadia Comaneci earned her perfect 10s, and I couldn’t have been more captivated. Look at her go! A little girl like me–strong, beautiful, successful! The world is watching her! It still makes me smile. But watching the London games, I couldn’t help but feel mostly sad. (Look at Jordyn Wieber cry on international television! Why am I watching this? Why did she devote her life to being humiliated on a world stage?) I think I’ve figured out why my reaction has changed: I’m now watching as an educator. As an educator, I look at young people and want to see positive outcomes for all our kids. And I wonder why in the world we need a social system that creates so many losers.
For every inspiring success story, there are thousands of failures. Kids all around the world have taken sport beyond healthy exercise to an obsession that dominates their childhoods. My cousin trained for the Olympic ski team, and spent his winters on the slopes, doing school work on his own at off hours. I don’t think he’d change a thing, but I wonder if it was the best thing for him. For the thousands of kids like him with big dreams that don’t pan out. And even if he had made the team, had won a medal, would it have been the right choice then?
A lot of our formal education system unfortunately also creates winners and losers. The best students go on to elite colleges and bright futures. It’s a sorting algorithm. But does it have to be that way? We need lots of capable people–every one we can find. I have never graded on a curve. I expect every student to master the material, and I personally approach anyone who is falling behind to ask how I can help.
Georgia Tech PhD alumni Jose Zagal and Jochen Rick wrote a great paper about lessons learned from collaborative board games. Why aren’t more of our pastimes collaborative? It’s a profound question. Our cultural rituals both reflect who we are and create it. So here’s a design question for you: What would a more collaborative cultural ritual look like? Could school sports be more collaborative, where everyone is working together to meet a shared goal? Could we get a group of folks together to accomplish something amazing, and celebrate what people together can do for the greater good? Those sorts of events actually happen all the time–fund raising walks where we are proud of everyone who finishes, barn raisings where a community builds a home. I wonder what it would take to get our media to celebrate collaborative events with equal enthusiasm as competitive ones. Or for our economic system to devote equal resources to making them possible.