One reason often given for avoiding testing is that it will damage the self esteem of our pupils if they find out that others have performed better than they. They do indeed discover this, whether or not we tell them directly, as there is always a comparison of grades amongst class members once feedback has been given.
The same argument is used for holding non-competitive sports days. Won’t it hurt their feelings to find out that others are stronger and can run faster and jump higher than they? Won’t they be traumatised by all this public display of physical differences?
I’ve argued elsewhere for the necessity of testing from a pedagogical point of view, as well as for accountability. Here I want to focus on its role in building character. We need to ask ourselves what assumptions lurk beneath the idea that it is traumatic for children to discover that they are not the smartest, most knowledgeable, fastest or strongest in their class.
When we seek to protect pupils from that knowledge, we are assuming that it will necessarily lead to envious and bitter thoughts, as they nurse grudges and wounded pride following their public humiliation. These are indeed damaging experiences. But are they inevitable? Does the discovery that we are not in fact the best always have this result?
Finding out that we are not the best can have very positive results, if it is taken in the right way. It can be humbling, rather than humiliating, and we can work on overcoming any envious thoughts we might have. We can seek to congratulate those who have done better than we have; we can reflect on how much it benefits us to have such knowledgeable and intelligent peers.
So instead of seeking to protect pupils from the revelation that there are others who are smarter and more knowledgeable than they, we can teach them that envy and wounded pride are not the inevitable result of this knowledge. A humble and generous attitude will allow us to profit from our defeats, and this is what we should be helping our pupils to cultivate.
It’s not as if they will be able to go through the whole of their life thinking they are the best at everything. As with so many of these educational fashions, a non-competitive approach only creates an artificial bubble which temporarily shields pupils from reality, and will lead to a nasty shock later on. It is much better for our pupils to find out the truth about their own shortcomings, and deal with them in a way which contributes towards character development.