A world without hierarchies? Perhaps it starts at school

August 6, 2011

When I was a teenager, my father often suggested  titles of books that he considered worth reading. For years, I stowed these titles away in my memory, always planning to get to them eventually but never managing to do so. About a year ago, I finally managed to read the first book on his list: Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull’s classic The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. This humorous, occasionally tongue-in-cheek book claims to offer a study of “hierarchiology,” an analysis of how human hierarchical social relations work. Looking at examples from education, the military, and corporations, Peter and Hull conclude that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” meaning that workers are promoted to higher-level positions until they reach the one which they are least suited for. At  that point, due to their less than stellar work performance, they remain at their “level of incompetence” indefinitely, struggling to complete their required tasks and often causing damage to their fellow workers and the company at large. For Peter and Hull, this is a basic social problem which accounts for many of the mishaps and disasters caused by human incompetence.

There is certainly some truth to this message, but I take issue with certain aspects of Peter and Hull’s analysis. Throughout the book, I get the sense that Peter and Hull have a very limited vision of human capabilities. “Competence” and “incompetence” for a given task  are portrayed as innate characteristics which an individual simply does or does not have; the human capacity to learn new skills and embrace new challenges are basically ignored. Meanwhile, Peter and Hull treat hierarchy as an innate characteristic of human experience. In  a humorous cartoon toward the beginning of the book, we see a bearded, hermit-like man lounging under a tree. The caption indicates that some people  try to avoid getting involved with hierarchies, but this is simply not an option for most of us. And, in most of our experience, this is true. Most jobs are arranged in a chain-like structure. Militaries, governments, corporations, the Catholic Church, and (until very recently in the West) families rely on this type of structure. This is how it has been throughout history. But does it really have to be this way?

For most of us, initiation into social life (beyond the family) occurs through education. And there is no question that school is an extremely hierarchical setting – for students as much for teachers and administrators. Corralled into groups based on age, students are encouraged to compete with one another for success. Even when streaming is not official policy, students soon realize that they are treated differently from their peers: some students, singled out as “bright,” are lauded with approval and positive attention; others, labeled as slow students (even if not in those words) are given disapproval and negative attention; meanwhile,  many in the middle slide through their education with very little attention at all. This focus on differences, on rankings, on rewards and punishments instills the very mentality which the Peter Principle reflects: that ability and talent are innate, that a student either has a certain capacity or does not. Of course, any good teacher and school will urge students to improve their skills and attain the highest level of progress. However, the reliance on grades, rankings and other markers which stress the differences among students suggest that the tacit premise remains: that no matter how diligent a teacher is, some students will always do better than others, and there will always be limits to what people can expect to achieve in a given area. According to Canadian  mathematician and educational philosopher John Mighton,  this focus on differences among students is one of the most toxic aspects of the educational system. In The End of Ignorance: Maximizing our Human Potential, Mighton asserts,

“There is an undercurrent of competition in our society that starts to pull us towards our employment from the day we enter school, and that diverts us from the real purpose of our education. If people visit a     park to watch a sunset, does it matter who walked there fastest or climbed the highest hill? These achievements may be noteworthy or admirable, but they are not really the point of visiting the park. If children were encouraged to learn things for their own sake – for the beauty of the ideas and the joy of making discoeries and seeing connections – rather than to get the best mark or be better than their peers, they might be less inclined when they are adults to compete for positions and possessions that mean so little to them” (page 271).

In this engaging and inspiring book, Mighton tells of his own struggles with math as a student – struggles which he ultimately worked through and went on to receive a PhD in mathematics. He then went on to found JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), an educational program which seeks to make mathematical concepts accessible to all children in a given classroom. It works by breaking problems into small parts, gradually raising the bar (in very small increments) so that students can gain a sense of their own progress,  and giving children the opportunity to practice and show off in front of their teachers and peers. There is a focus on practice, repetition and vigorous training which according to Mighton is often lacking in contemporary classrooms (particularly ones in which the constructivist model, where students are expected to make discoveries independently with limited guidance from th teacher, predominates). And, Mighton’s system has been proven to work: the books abounds not only with case studies of classes and individual students who went from failing to excelling at math, but outside research which supports JUMP methods.

Naturally, reading Mighton compels me to think about my own position as both a student and a teacher. As a graduate student, I find myself in a very competitive environment. On the one hand, my colleagues and I have formed a strong community and have become very good friends; on the other, there is an undercurrent of competitiveness (usually taking the form of departmental gossip) which suggests that we are constantly comparing ourselves to one another. I can’t help but think of how different such a situation would be (and how much more confidence I would have in my own academic work) if this situation were to be  altered, if we could maximize the collaborative aspects of our relations and minimize the competitive ones. Because the truth is that we are indeed very collaborative a great deal of the time. My colleauges have been invaluable in encouraging me with my research, right up to the point of suggesting the thesis topic which I am now starting to develop. On the other hand, we are thrust into a competitive situation by circumstances beyond our control – after all, there are only so many awards, scholarships and ultimately jobs to go around…Right? I suspect Mighton might beg to differ.

More important, Mighton’s book leads me to think about the approach which I take with my own students. For two years I have taught beginning Spanish, and usually after the first couple of weeks of school, the students’ differences begin to manifest themselves. I can’t help but notice these differences and relate to the students based on them: the faster students who are quick to grasp new concepts and eager to participate quickly catch my attention; I am more likely to call them by name and make eye contact with them. Meanwhile,  the reticent students who have a harder time with the material are more likely to escape my notice.

A big difference between university and primary/secondary teaching is that in the latter, student learning is primarily viewed as the teacher’s responsibility, while in the former it is seen as the students’ responsibility to take charge of their own education. This is not a bad concept in itself – university students are supposed to be adults (though I have to wonder how many of the 17 and 18-year-olds I teach would really consider themselves to be adults) and to a large extent students are responsible for their own learning. However, I cannot help but feel that in my large university, far too many undergraduates fall through the cracks. During my two years of teaching, I’ve noticed that most of my students do very well on the first quiz, thus revealing that all have the potential to learn a foreign language. Later, as the year progresses, the class becomes stratified. And this isn’t just the case with my section ; it’s a pattern that occurs throughout all sections of the beginning Spanish class.

There are many factors that contribute to this division. One is simply that the course material becomes more difficult as the year progresses, making it harder for all students to understand all concepts. Another is that students become busy  – many are inundated with outside jobs as well as classes – and cannot or do not put the necessary time toward studying. However, after I am reading Mighton I have to consider the impact which my own assumptions and attitudes as teacher might be having on my students. Whether I mean to or not, I often find myself ranking my students, classifying them into groups of stronger and weaker learners, giving the stronger ones privileged treatment. What would happen if I were to take Mighton’s approach? There will always be differences of ability among students, but I know that all are capable of learning Spanish in the end, even if at different rates of progress. After reading Mighton, I am increasingly suspicious that hierarchies are not innate, that they are largely imposed on us by our educational system and ingrained in us from an early age. And while most of us can’t do away with hierarchies in our daily lives, we perhaps can learn to stop taking them so seriously, to see them as the artificial barriers which they are and to refuse to let them limit our own growth and potential.

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