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Speculative Diction

Contesting a metaphor


Last week with the release of the OECD’s PISA results, there was a flurry of media coverage of Canada’s (and other nations’) performance in this assessment, which I think was best summed up by Audrey Watters with the headline, “PISA Scores Confirm that [Fill in the Blank with Education Narrative of Your Choice]”. I didn’t have time to read most of this coverage, but one article I did catch was on the Globe and Mail website and was emblazoned with the headline “If you’re on an education ‘journey’, you’ve lost the race”. The author brings attention to this metaphor, but sadly doesn’t seem to provide any useful analysis of its implications – other than suggesting that the “losing” countries employ metaphors such as “journey” in order to justify their poor performance.

It’s disappointing to see that not only is the “race” metaphor the one that dominates (think of Obama’s “Race to the Top”), but that other metaphors are being dismissed as unhelpful or even as a means of hiding poor performance – assumedly because they don’t invoke this notion of competition and “getting ahead” of others. Yet metaphors aren’t simply ways of describing reality; they “highlight and hide” aspects of what they describe, bringing attention to some aspects of an object while downplaying or obscuring other angles. A race cannot be a journey; in the one case we’re in a hurry and we have specific defined objectives. In the other case we allow for discovery and serendipity, changes in direction, and the idiosyncrasies of individual students.

To state the obvious, competitions have winners and losers. My opinion, which I’m sure makes me an enemy of “excellence”, is that education shouldn’t have winners and losers in this way. But of course it does. In that sense it merely reflects the way our larger society, and particularly its economic side, is structured as a kind of zero-sum game. This isn’t a new point at all; it’s informed critiques of education systems for decades. But it remains the case that we’ve structured education in ways that reflect both a hierarchical and a competitive economy of rewards, from the grading system that allows some students A’s and others C’s, to the fact that such rewards are used as tokens in the bigger game of educational success, “ranking” students by their ability to perform effectively on the terms set out by educational institutions.

This is why every time I hear talk of “gamification” in education, I have to roll my eyes – as if education isn’t already enough of a game, one where the rules clearly favour some students over others. Our schooling systems still allow the economically and culturally privileged can use their capital to purchase more “merit”, from tutoring to special activities and opportunities that help some students to build their profiles further for entrance into prestigious postsecondary institutions. In this sense, true competition is a myth in education just as in economics, since advantages of all kinds can be bought and sold if the resources are available. There is no “level playing field” here, either between nations, between schools, or between students.

Not only that, but competition itself has effects on behaviours. It can breed dishonesty and encourage superficial and technocratic solutions to deeper problems, the rejigging of numbers and rules to produce the “right” results, and the fiddling of facts. It can fuel animosity between agents engaged in similar tasks, and discourage the collaborative and cooperative actions and attitudes that we need so badly and will need more in the future, if we’re to solve the pressing problems we face nationally and globally. These forms of assessment, ranking, comparison and competition also tend to draw the focus to quantitative factors, reducing education to numbers of graduates per capita, to scores on standardized tests, to measurable outcomes that can be used to show that a nation isn’t “losing” on some imaginary global playing field.

So now it should hardly be a surprise that alongside the already entrenched international rankings of universities – a merry-go-round that every year favours the same class of institutions – we have the OECD not merely providing information about the world’s education systems but essentially ranking them in a global “achievement” contest. Ironically, even “equity in education” becomes an element in this contest.

In a context where competition is assumed to be the means of producing better results and further “efficiencies”, information gets put to a particular use. It underpins the comparisons and rankings that are not neutral tools for the self-improvement of institutions and nations, but ways of showing who’s on top in the international hierarchy. With university rankings in particular, results may be used as fodder in policy debates. When Canada’s U15 institutions lobby for changes to funding that would channel more resources to them in the name of targeted excellence, rankings and comparisons are invoked as proof – proof that some universities are better than others, and also that they would be able to “compete” even more effectively, to be really “world class”, if only money were not being squandered on lesser institutions.

Another example of this is the constant complaint that Canada’s proportion of PhDs per capita is too low, once again when compared to other (OECD) nations. This is essentially a meaningless comparison unless we delve into the actual (complex) reasons why increased numbers of PhDs are expected to increase the amount of “innovation” and thereby, the economic performance of the nation. That correlation doesn’t tell us a thing about causation, but it’s the line that’s parroted again and again by those pushing for government support for further increases to PhD enrolment. Never mind the that it’s apparently the PhDs who leave academic institutions (rather than trying to stay and become academics) who are assumed to drive this kind of development, and that many or most PhD students still don’t receive guidance as to how they can turn their education towards a non-academic career of this kind.

The measurement of educational gains is not the same as striving towards the goal of having an education system that lifts up the weakest and least privileged among us, giving them chances they might not have had otherwise. Yes, I’m an idealist; I believe there should be no “losers” in education, either locally or globally. It should be for the benefit of all, and the goal of furthering achievement should be about helping students, not playing in to a global game of who can beat whom in the education rat race. This means rejecting the notion of competition as the most-favoured mechanism of governance in a field where ostensibly, we’re trying to increase equality for all (unless of course it’s just “equal chances to compete”…). Yes, this is a major contradiction and I think it’s one that needs more attention. But for the moment, I think we need to remember that striving to do better is not the same as striving to be better than others.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Sean Lawrence / December 19, 2013 at 11:53

    I enjoy your posts, and this one as much as others.

    I’d just want to add an idealistic thought of my own: the metaphor to competition is a sort of category error, because education is not any kind of limited resource. There isn’t some lump of education that we’re all fighting for a larger share of. On the contrary, there’s no limit to the amount of learning possible in the world. This is what makes it immaterial — ideal, in the original sense of the word.