We’re taught very early on in life that ‘fitting in’ is a key strategy for making our way in the world. No one explicitly tells us this, but it quickly becomes the central socialisation component of our early classroom years.
Apply yourself: you’re the teacher’s pet.
Excel: you’re a nerd.
Can’t keep up: you’re slow, dumb, and not destined for anything good.
To stay off the radar you need to find that sweet spot in the middle. Do enough to stay off the bottom, but not so much that you hit the spotlight at the top.
Children don’t behave that way in a natural environment, of course. But when you wrap measures and pressures around externally defined goals, and then effectively pit them against each other in regular benchmarking, you are asking them to fire up their internal defence mechanisms to survive. If you’re doing better than me I’ll want to pull you down. If you’re behind me, I’ll want to keep you there.
The system is specifically designed to ferry you right down the centre because that’s the most efficient use of everyone’s time. Too slow, and you need help keeping up. Too fast, and you need someone to come and run alongside you to give directions. That’s too much resource attached to not enough outcome.
A mass production system is built to produce mass results, and that’s just not possible if you spend too much time fussing around with one of the products on the line. You need to get it back on the conveyor and everything moving uniformly again.
My heart breaks for the millions of children across many generations who have been unable to achieve that middle ground. For the ones who got too far ahead and suffered socially for it, for the ones who fell too far behind and had to endure that embarrassment…and for any child today who feels they need to harden and shield their heart, mind and spirit when the 9am bell rings.
We see you, and we need to do better for you.