Making Winners

The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate “apparently ordinary” people to unusual effort.  The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people. – K. Patricia Cross

One of the things Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers confirmed to me is the make-or-break power a teacher wields over his/her students.  It is awesome, if not frightening to think, how teachers’ selections can determine who gets more attention (and hence more chances of improving or honing his talent/skills) or who gets virtually ignored.

In my days (and I think this is still true today), selecting The Chosen One, a.k.a. the contestant in oration or vocal solo, the Spelling Bee or the math contest, was the teacher’s exclusive prerogative.  The favored one then gets specially tutored for the contest.  Can you imagine how much advantage one gets over his/her peers if he/she gets selected year after year ?  Ergo, the more times you are chosen, the better chances you have for succeeding in the future (read also my post here about 10,000 hours).

This is what Gladwell pointed to as The Matthew Effect, after the Bible passage that says, “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

Now think about this: in an ordinary classroom, the brighter ones are usually the most participative – they not only know the correct answers, they also ask a lot of questions (how they can think of 101 questions to ask in 50 short minutes is something that never fails to amaze me!)  So what is the alternative of a teacher who is pressed for time?

Mea culpa.  As I look back, I must admit that there were many times when I would chose to ask those who I thought could quickly give me the correct answers. But I must state for the record that I did this only because I was usually pressed for time – there were always so many things to discuss but time was always short so, to finish my assigned tasks for the day, I sometimes felt I had to get the Q&A portion over and done with so I could go to the next topic.  Not right I know but I had no choice.

Now I must be MORE conscious and careful about selections, i.e. everybody must be given equal chances of participating.  This makes teaching even harder but there is no other way.  I must remember that each time I make a choice as to who gets to recite or who gets my attention, I am also given an opportunity to make a winner.

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