Climbing to stand on shoulders of giants

In my previous post, I gave some thoughts about the relevance of grades in education, particularly for primary through high school education. I think grading is important for the student and for the teacher. I also think that the grading to a curve is valuable but requires teacher planning to have the curve well-centered so that the tails are clearly distinguished. The complaints about grading are actually about the excessive importance we are placing on college admissions and scholarships that demand high grades.

For many fields, the importance of college education is declining in importance. Specialized training and certification are replacing the role of college degrees. Also, much of the education that once required participation in college courses is now available online and often with better quality resources. In many cases, people need to learn only an aspect that is relevant to their jobs. They can easily get this training when the need arises.

My larger conclusion is that while grades are very important for the education process, the optimal grade for most students should be a C, or close to the center of the bell curve. C grades represent a well-adjustment to balance pursuing multiple competencies and to balance mental development with social development. A student that spends time helping classmates master what he already mastered is spending time he could be spending on getting a higher grade himself. While the C grade may not be celebrated within the school system, the relationships formed and the socialization skills learned will serve the person for the remainder of their lives.

The purpose of grades should be to build an age cohort of people who socialize well together. This is not a utopic ideal, the socialization will include conflict and group distinctions. It is just a good thing to have a population that recognizes its peers as equals by virtue of the fact they belong to the same age cohort. Such populations have the ability to organize and collaborate for future challenges.

Defining a cohort involves pruning out the outlier populations that are not conforming to the middle. The curve is important because it allows us to identify where to cut off the tails. Those in the tails are excluded from the cohort. We discard the high-scoring tails to a college path that also optimizes to cater to the high scoring tails. A possible answer for low-scoring tails is to as quickly as possible develop their capabilities through alternatives to the school system. That is not possible in the current environment, so instead we spend a lot of effort trying to get the low-scoring tails at least into the middle scoring group.

The discussions of schooling gets bogged down in the perceived importance of education on a person’s future life outcomes, and income opportunities in particular. It helps to consider instead the training process for music education. I am specifically thinking about the training of musicians to obtain virtuoso levels of skill in their area.

Music education starts off similar to elementary school for academics. There are some basic musical concepts that can be taught to a class. These concepts including learning how to keep a beat, how to match a rhythm in unison with others, how to find notes on an instrument, and how to play or sing simple songs. Even when these courses are easy to pass, that accomplishment does not automatically qualify the student to the next level.

Each successive step in the musical education requires an audition. In the audition, the student proves that he is ready to take his training to the next level. The audition also gives confidence to the teacher that the teaching efforts will likely result in a better musician that mastered the goals for that level of training. Eventually, the goal is to be trained by the best in the particular instrument or style. That training must be earned by an audition.

The audition is not a comfortable process even when the student is confident of his skills. Acceptance as the teacher’s next student is the tangible reward for a good audition. The penalty is failing to meet the standards, or being outplayed by more qualified students.

Music auditions do not have grades in the same sense as academic testing. There may be a recorded score, but the score comes down to subjective assessment of the quality of the music, and perceived ease and joy of the student playing the music.

The primary point is that the student wants to be great at his music. He pursues the teachers to get him closer to that goal. Similarly, these sought-after teachers need to know they are not wasting their time with the student. The student is ready to learn the skills that sets the teacher apart from the less capable musicians. He does not want to spend his time training more basic skills.

When I was much younger, I was very interested in music. I struggled a lot in my own pursuit of music and never really advanced. Even now, I play at a level that is excelled by many 7 year old students. I am not musical myself, but I paid attention to musicians. I particularly paid attention to musicians playing music of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic era as well as some of the modern era. In most cases, each musician was identified in part by the teacher he studied under. The musician frequently excels over his teacher, but we recognize that this accomplishment partly was the result of the training from his teacher.

The student excels by standing on the shoulders of the giant that was his teacher. He reached those shoulders by strenuous climbing.

In context of my curve analogy, this master musician is in the extreme high-end tail of the distribution. Other professional musicians are in the tail but not as far out. In this analogy, the central cohort are the people who appreciate music, where music appreciation is a discipline of its own right. Also, in this analogy, I would be in the extreme low end tail wondering what I’m missing out on.

The music industry needs a large cohort of music appreciation. The musicians need an audience, and for many older works, the audience needs some training to appreciate the composition. The music appreciation cohort needs the outliers of the professional musicians and the even more exceptional soloists.

The same is true for society in general. Society needs its leaders who can manage large or complex efforts. For the most part, these are people who worked their way up in successive assignments and education accomplishments. I am excluding the true outliers who currently dominate the richest-people lists by a matter of their unique circumstances. The model I have in mind are the people in high positions of corporation and government. Most of these people spent the latter education under mentorship or guidance from someone who held similar positions.

Most people do not get these opportunities. Successively higher training opportunities have very few slots available for new students. Also, the slots have age restrictions. After certain ages, it is no longer practical to pursue the advancement because there is not enough time left to get the payoff that would occur for a younger student.

Like with music analogy that requires a central cohort of music appreciation, society need a central cohort of people who understand what their leaders are doing even if they don’t like it. That central cohort needs their leaders whose achievements come from standing on the shoulders of predecessors.

The entire process relies on an education system that has a pruning mechanism. We need a way to develop and cohere a central cohort who can understand a leader and who can form collaborative groups to respond to the leader either supportively or antagonistically. The pruning mechanism need to separate the upper tail from the central cohort so that those in that tail can pursue the advanced training. That training must start at a younger age. That training is intense and highly selective because the available resources become more limited as the training reaches more advanced stages.

At the very highest level, the current leader usually has just one understudy who will take over eventually. There may a huge population of similar age who have the raw capability to have been in that position, but it is too late for them to start building to that point. There may even be a large population of people who have advanced training but they will not benefit from that final mentoring for preparation to take over a particular position.

Grades are especially important for the advanced training of the people at the high end tails. Colleges need high admission standards to assure that the students can handle the more advanced workload and also to assure that the classes will not slow down to teach remedial skills that could have been learned earlier. College itself involves advancements that require grading to evaluate readiness for even more advanced teaching with even more limited resources.

High-scoring students need the early education training in the grading process itself. This process involves tests over content that the student did not choose. The process involved individual testing, not collaboration with others. The process involves the high stakes in terms of consequences falling short of a perfect scores. The subsequent advancements requires being offered the next opportunity after everyone else earning similar or higher scores get placed.

The advancement is like the game of musical chairs. At each successive advancement, there are fewer chairs. Ultimately there will be only one chair. To reach that point with a single chair, the student had to have succeeded to reach that point. Getting there requires a lifelong effort of very diligent study and competent test taking. The training for that diligence and tolerance to testing starts at a young age.

At the young age, it is not possible to determine who will be eligible for advancement. As a result, the entire class gets subjected to this process. The process is very valuable for the students who ultimately do advance. For the remainder of the class, the process is annoying currently. Society or the teachers make the process annoying by insisting that everyone in the class should be in this high end group.

The core problem about grading is a confusion of the goals of the education. It is not appropriate to push everyone into being a future executive of some corporation, or some similarly high status position. The greater value to both society and the individual is the development of a well adjusted middle cohort that contains the bulk of the population. The grading is necessary to prune the curve of its tails. The grading prepares the upper tail for their future advancement prospects. For the remainder, the grading is an opportunity to learn to tolerate such demands without stressing about the grades. A major lesson the C student learns is that the grades are not meant for him. The grades do not matter for the life that he will go on to enjoy, a life of good social adaptation that readily organizes into collaborative units.

Grading is important. Making high grades is important only for those who will end up standing on the shoulders of giants. For everyone else and for society as a whole, the optimal grade is a C.


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