In many walks of life, we are quite used to systems that select suitable candidates by putting a graded series of hurdles in their path.
In the USA we do this with presidential candidates: we make them campaign on the cold streets of Iowa, we make them raise money and watch how effectively they spend it. The 2008 presidential election was effectively a two-year marathon.
Any tournament has similar characteristics: by the time you get to the finals, you should expect a stronger opponent than the one you beat in the semi-finals.
Outside of school, but in the shadow of school, we have other activities that have selection built in, that are organized as a series of ever-higher hurdles. I’m thinking of ballet, martial arts, piano, guitar, swimming, basket ball, but also of World of Warcraft and StepMania. All or most of these involve large numbers of enthusiastic kids who start at the lower levels, and far fewer kids who stick it out through the higher levels.
These selection systems work, and kids sort themselves out. Jeremy plays Bach on the violin but can’t do the splits to save his life, and Joanie is on her way to be an Olympic-level swimmer, but dropped out of Taekwondo after a single lackluster year.
While kids pursue these activities and attempt the ever-higher hurdles, they aren’t necessarily left alone, nor thrown willy-nilly into the deep end. They get encouraged, challenged, coached, cajoled, applauded. Somebody cares about their performance, somebody drives them to soccer practice, somebody buys them their uniform.
You could structure an educational system on these same principles, and I would argue that in many ways we have. Historically, we thought it was perfectly appropriate for school to act as a sorting mechanism in this way. After a few years of school, we could tell that Johnny should become a carpenter, that Jessica should become a nurse, that Jason should pursue something with numbers, and that Josh had a knack for words.
We’ve changed our thinking about what education is and what school should be for. We now talk in terms of a minimum set of knowledge, skills and capacities that students should be taught before we let them loose. They should acquire all this while in school from K-12, and we should leave no child behind while doing this.
What we seem to miss in all of this is that the infrastructure of school, the institution of school, is still mostly geared around the old model of selection. School is still better at sorting than at educating. And mathematics, for better or worse, is in the center of this.