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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Treating Education as a Zero-Sum Game

By Michael Brooks — April 21, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Michael Brooks. Michael is an author, journalist, and broadcaster with a PhD in quantum physics and lives in Sussex, England.

No matter how many academics give inspirational TED talks or publish papers on innovative pedagogy, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears teachers donate to the cause, there is a hidden barrier to meaningful, large-scale improvement in education: zero-sum thinking.

I came to this conclusion after completing a crash course in education reform. Fourteen months ago I was asked to curate a summit on the global future of secondary education, then produce a set of recommendations based on the summit findings. On Wednesday, I presented those recommendations at the World Literacy Summit in Oxford. Though I am reluctant to admit it, they are unlikely to achieve anything unless we stop scoring educational innovation in terms of winners and losers.

It is most obvious at the highest levels. My experience of meetings with education ministry personnel in Canada, for instance, is that a mention of another jurisdiction’s success is received like a stab in the back. Whether the success is in increasing engagement with learners from poorer backgrounds, or in stripping away the tyranny of the high-stakes exam, any successful innovation in education seems to rile those who weren’t involved. No one celebrates; they batten down the hatches and wait for their superiors to thunder in, demanding why the opposition - for that is how they are seen - is surging ahead.

Zero-sum thinking is endemic at grass roots level, too, however. At my children’s school in Lewes, Sussex, the senior leadership team came across research findings suggesting that teaching English in “streamed” sets is a bad idea. Mixed ability classes improve the achievements of lower ability students without affecting the performance of higher achievers. The research caused the head to abandon streaming in English classes, but parents of the high ability students couldn’t make sense of it. How can this be good for someone else’s child, and yet not be bad for mine?

I have seen it in Singapore, where an innovative school principal moved his students away from rote learning. The principals in neighbouring schools, rather than questioning whether they should engage with their colleague’s ideas, circled like vultures. They knew that parents, who generally prefer the familiarity of a failing system to the risk that an innovation might fall short of its goals, would divert the flow of students - and money - towards them.

One of my go-to experts, Susan Opok (who co-presented our findings in Oxford), manages an innovative network of schools in rural Uganda. She frequently faces the ire of parents who hear of students working together in groups with no direct, continuous input from the teacher. The teacher is roaming around the groups, making suggestions, offering encouragements, pointing out areas of the project that need work. The zero-sum mentality tells the parents that a teacher who gains such freedom inevitably costs their children opportunities to learn. That is why they complain, threatening to withdraw their child.

Even within a school, it can be divisive: I have spoken with teachers embracing innovations whose only regret is that they are now resented by their colleagues who aren’t - and somehow feel they are now second class educators.

The same zero-sum mentality lies behind the refusal to accept that standards of education are improving; every year, we and other nations have a conversation about whether improving results in major exams are a sign that tests are getting easier. Few are the voices celebrating the possibility that our teachers and headteachers are getting even better at their jobs. It’s as if it doesn’t occur to anyone that, when it comes to education, everyone can get better at once.

It’s not hard to see where the corrosive zero-sum mindset comes from. Education has become a political punching bag on the national and international stage. As a result, it has absorbed the language and ethos of adversarial politics. Your competitors’ losses are your gains; their failures are your successes. But education is not like politics, and it should not frame its discourse in the same way. Education is not a zero-sum game.

There are plenty of win-win opportunities for improving education. Last month, I met a group of teachers from the Surrey school district of British Columbia, Canada, which is experimenting with removing letter-grades in several pilot schools. Instead, the students have portfolios of work and detailed teachers’ reports on student skills, abilities and aptitudes. Initially, local colleges were horrified at the prospect of applicants from the district approaching their admissions personnel without an easy alphabetical way to pick between them. But employers and higher education institutions are realizing that this can be a win-win.

Experiments in the United States are showing that the no-score system is beneficial to students - especially those who aren’t great in formal tests, and those from traditionally low-achieving groups such as ethnic minorities. But it is also proving beneficial to colleges and employers, who find the new assessment methods help them pick out exactly the kinds of students that will rise to their challenges.

Perhaps the worst zero-sum illusion of all is the OECD’s PISA scores. As one nation celebrates rising up the rankings, another nation implodes in its - that is the nature of ranking. But if you believe the PISA scores mean anything, they could be seen as a reason for celebration. Raising achievement in education is good for everybody, no matter where it happens. If the next Einstein comes out of Africa, who would consider that a bad thing? If a Chinese student invents an efficient process that pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, who would be churlish enough to complain the innovation that solved global warming didn’t come out of Europe or America?

Until we stamp out the zero-sum mentality, it will be near-impossible to implement the kinds of large-scale reform the world’s education systems so desperately need. The first step towards higher global achievement, then, is to create an atmosphere of collaboration between all players. Ironically, when we move away from scoring points, everyone’s a winner.

Michael Brooks is a consultant at New Scientist and writes a weekly column for New Statesman. He is the author of the bestselling 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense and Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science. Michael is leading the team charged with assessing promising learning pathways for the decades ahead and reporting recommendations in the Equinox Blueprint. On April 14, Brooks presented Learning 2030: A Blueprint for Ethical Learning Provision at the World Literacy Summit in Oxford. Click here to download the blueprint free of charge.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.