Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


You Can't Have Winners without Losers

Sometimes science fiction is barely fiction at all, like in this passage:

The students began to type.  Next to each child's screen, a plastic cradle held a cell phone hooked to the school's network.  The children's practice sentences were instantly graded and transmitted to their parents' phones, ensuring that each parent knew, at each moment, how their child was scoring.

Additionally, all sentences were tabulated, in terms of accuracy and speed, into a data pool describing the class, the school, the district, and the system as a whole.  At this moment, every child everywhere was typing "SENSIBLE STUDENTS SUCCEED SPLENDIDLY," allowing every school to be instantly ranked in comparison to every other school.  On Competency Exam days these rankings were used to determine whether or not the school was functioning properly, or whether it should be shut down.  Today, fortunately, was not the Competency Exam.  It was a Practice Test.

Ms. Span flipped through the students' responses on her screen, checking them.  She was on edge, even though it was just practice.  The thing about Practice Tests was that they led inevitably to the Competency Exam, and if things went poorly then, Ms. Span could be classified a Bad Teacher and lose her job.

Other than the instantaneous comparisons and immediacy of feedback provided by the technology, this passage from The Wikkeling by Steven Arntson is not too far from reality.  Students and teachers really are compared based on their test scores in the current educational landscape.  No other criteria really matters in the making of big decisions--not creativity, problem-solving skills, critical thinking abilities, contextual knowledge, or other skills.  Students are ranked on how well they test and teachers and schools are graded on how well their students rank.

And many of the standardized tests used to create these rankings are norm-referenced ones, which means that the tests are graded on a curve and students' scores are determined in comparison to each other.  Once all the tests are scored and average is determined, with half the students ranked as above that average and half below.  Using this measure, half the students by definition will always score below average.  There is guaranteed to be a bottom quarter of students who fail every time.  Even if every single student shows marked improvement and gets more than 90% of the answers correct, there will be a bottom half and a bottom quarter, and those at the bottom will be considered failing in comparison to the rest.  It is impossible for everyone to be considered a success, no matter how well they do, because the measures used are competitive.  We have created a system that guarantees we will always have millions of failing students taught by thousands of failing teachers in thousands of failing schools.

Because our measures are based on competition.

And in a competition, there will always be losers.

I know some workplaces use a similar scenario for their appraisal processes.  There is an average percentage of annual raise for the pool of workers, say 3% for this scenario.  Each person earns a raise based on their annual appraisal score.  Some will score more highly than others, so some will get higher raises than others, as long as it all averages out to 3% for everyone.  So if someone earns a 5% raise based on excellent performance, then someone else must be scored low enough on their appraisal to only earn 1% so that the numbers balance out.

Reality says that things will likely work out, that there will be some under-performers in each organization.  But philosophically the organization is saying there must be.  It is not possible for the entire team to achieve together, for everyone to band together and pull each other up to an excellent level of performance as a group.  No, some of the group will have to perform disappointingly.  You can never have a work group composed entirely of achievers; your organization will always have losers on its team.  In fact, you're not likely to have a cohesive team practicing excellent teamwork, since members are in competition with each other to be the achievers and avoid being the losers.  If I help someone else do well in his or her job, then that's less raise available for me at the end of the year.  Better to see everyone else fail in comparison to me, even if it hurts the organization's overall performance.

That doesn't seem like a model of doing business that promotes organizational excellence.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-competition.  My Dad was a coach and I grew up on competitive sports, was an athlete in college, have competed in many events as an adult, and am an avid sports fan.  I know through personal experience that competition pushes people and can help them excel.  I've achieved greater levels of success because I was comparing myself to others and hoping to beat them (or at the least stay with them).


But you can't have a competition winner without a loser.

So, if we ever hope to really have a "we" that succeeds together as a group--where we are all winners and don't have any losers on our team--there has to be more to our measures of success, to how we define ourselves, to the core of our philosophical models than pure competition.  It needs to be an ingredient, but it needs to be moderated.

In big teams sports like basketball and football, participants can end up in one of two categories at the end of any event: half will be winners and half will be losers.  There are other sports, though, that aren't so black-and-white.  The ones I've always enjoyed, for instance, the endurance events like cross country, cycling, and triathlon.  A whole pack of people competes, anywhere from a few dozen in smaller events to thousands and thousands in the big road races and marathons.  There will only be one pure winner; does that make everyone else losers?  Not in my experience.  There are categories and subcategories (gender and age, for instance) for determining other winners, but it doesn't end there.  A few of the competitors will start the event hoping to be the overall winner, but the vast majority of participants know they have no chance of winning and their goal is not to be the absolute, singular best in the field.  They enter with the goal of achieving the best personal performances they are capable of as individuals.  It's possible for every single participant in an event to each have his or her best personal performances ever at the same time.  In that instance there might only be one true "winner," but it's hard to say anyone else was really defeated or was a "loser."  And they all pushed each other, through their competitiveness, to reach their best performances together.  Even the last place finisher can be happy if he or she went faster/farther/better than ever before, pulled along by the other competitors.

It's competition of a different sort, and everyone can benefit from it in the right circumstances.  With the right models of competition, hybrid models that encourage everyone to work together even as they work against each other, we can be something different together.  It's not about defeating the competition so much as pushing each other so everyone benefits.  But it means we find ways to help everyone and make it so no one truly loses.

Those aren't the models I see in the education and workplace examples above.  And they aren't the economic models pushed by advocates of pure capitalism.  As this excellent article, 6 Things Rich People Need to Stop Saying, articulates so well, the purely competitive capitalism model ensures there will always be plenty of losers:

So "anyone can get rich" isn't just untrue, it's insultingly untrue. You can't have a society where everyone is an investment banker. And you can't have a society where you pay six figures to every good policeman, nurse, firefighter, schoolteacher, carpenter, electrician and all of the other ten thousand professions that civilization needs to survive (and that rich people need in order to stay rich).

It's like setting a jar of moonshine on the floor of a boxcar full of 10 hobos and saying, "Now fight for it!" Sure, in the bloody aftermath you can say to each of the losers, "Hey, you could have had it if you'd fought harder!" and that's true on an individual level. But not collectively -- you knew goddamned well that nine hobos weren't getting any hooch that night. So why are you acting like it's their fault that only one of them is drunk?

You're intentionally conflating "anyone can have the moonshine" with "everyone can have it." And you are doing it because you're hoping that we will all be too busy fighting each other to ask why there was only one jar.

Wouldn't it be better if instead we looked to create hybrid economic models--copy from other nations, even--that preserve competition yet make sure there are no losers?  I don't think it's unrealistic to think we might.  And I certainly think we have a moral imperative to do so.

Until we do, we'll be arguing about how much to gut a system that already looks like this:

When the U.S. is not in a recession, the Federal Reserve intentionally aims to keep unemployment above a certain level, in order to fend off excessive inflation. You read that right: The government makes sure that at least 3 to 5 percent of Americans seeking work at any given time are unemployed.

You can't have winners without losers.  And our current system not only guarantees there will always be losers, it blames them for being so.  Them.  "Them," as though "they" are not part of the "us" that is the U.S. that we all want to see succeed.  As though "they" are not one of "us."  As though "they" might not be "us" with a change of circumstances; as though "we" might not have been "them" in the past or might be in the future.  "They" are "us," even if we don't want to admit it.

We should all seek to be winners together.

You read that right: The government makes sure that at least 3 to 5 percent of Americans seeking work at any given time are unemployed. It's not necessarily crazy for it to do this, but it is crazy to scapegoat the poor afterward. . . . 

The moral evidence is clear: It's wrong to make false implications that people are poor and unemployed because they are shiftless, and that the level of national shiftlessness inexplicably doubled about the time the housing bubble popped. And it's wrong to intentionally target the most vulnerable in society. None of us knows when we might need that social safety net -- and all of us are lessened when we yank it out from beneath our fellow human beings.


At 6/30/2012 6:51 AM, Blogger CDL said...

We did this Space Counting activity at a staff meeting.
The result my partner and I had was so different from what was expected that it threw off the group leader and it was mainly discarded. Later, that person said to add it to the results. It was important. A good skill to have.
My partner and I found ourselves helping the person following us. We slowed down. We gave a warning such as I make my 4s different than you. We helped the other succeed. No one else had that experience.
My partner and I share a space and it's been very stressful. We bonded even more after this activity talking about how we have supported the other and how we will need to even more this coming month. It was awesome.
And apparently, not the preferred result.


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