Participation Trophies and Mathematics
Participation trophies have muddied the water of success. Go to most sporting banquets and you’ll see every participant get a trophy. So how is this a problem? The problem is two-fold. Participants don’t feel the need to push themselves as they know they will get an award at the end of the season wether they play or not. And second, participation awards diminish the significance of the true accomplishments of those who work hard.
So how do participation awards fit into mathematics. Our government is trying their best to make us competitive with other countries in mathematics in sciecne. However, they are watering down the content to make sure that all participants feel good when they are done. I recall when I was in school, taking Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry was a choice. When schools allowed students to make a choice when taking these courses, the content remained rigorous.
Not every student has the capabilities to think abstractly. And let’s be honest, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. We must realize that everyone has individual gifts and talents, and when we try to force everyone into developing talents they don’t have, we must lower our standards to ensure that our students meet those standards. I am a 5' 6" individual who does not possess the physical capabilities to slam dunk a basketball, and I am fine with that. I have often used this fact as an analogy to make my point. Let’s say the government wants to develop students that can slam dunk basketballs. Now, in order to do that, they set an unreasonable goal for all students to slam dunk basketballs before they graduate. Now, considering my height, we all know that I will never achieve that goal, however, the government realizes the same fact. Therefore, they lower all the goals to 6 foot to ensure that all students can meet their lofty goal. Now, I am able to slam dunk a basketball, and if I am naive enough, I might think I have a future in the NBA. However, when truly tested, I find that I have not been adequately equipped to meet this lofty real world goal. We do the same exact things with our students in mathematics classes. The algebra that we teach today pales in comparrison to the rigor I faced in the ‘80’s. My teacher was not forced to water down the content to ensure that all students passed the class. Failure was a real option, and success was true success. I struggled in my Algebra I class and was all the better for it. While I made a C in my first high school class, the rigor that I experienced was the pavement to the success I would later encounter. My teacher was compassionate, but compassionate enough to show me the truth and make sure that I did not have false expectations of my abilities.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with four years of mathematics in high school. As a matter of fact, I believe it is essential. But rather than forcing every student to take Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry, why not have courses to help students prepare themselves to handle the numbers that will truly impact their lives. Balancing a checkbook, figuring discounts in their heads, understanding the consequences of debt, determining the best deals, determining how much carpet they need to buy to fill their living room? I know so many successful people who do not use Algebra everyday.
So to avoid the participation trophies in mathematics, why don’t we spend time on telling the truth to our students and make them the best they can be. If we focus on that aspect, we may very well be able to compete against other countries in mathematics.