Schools Are Good for Showing Off, Not for Learning

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Here’s one explanation of the education gap, and why it keeps increasing.

Published on September 19, 2013 by Peter Gray in Freedom to Learn 

Suppose you are a student in a high school or college course and a magic fairy offers you the following choice: (1) You will learn the material in the course well, but will get a low grade (a D).  Or (2) you will not learn the material at all, but will get a high grade (an A).  Which would you choose?  Be honest. 

All this has nothing to do with learning, and, really, we all know it.  We rarely even bother to think about what our children are actually learning in school; we only care about the grades.  We, the parents, maybe even more than our kids, think it would be stupid for our kids to choose Alternative 1 over Alternative 2.  We would forbid them from making that choice, if we could.


If schools were for learning rather than showing off, we would design them entirely differently.  They would be places where people could follow their own interests, learn what they wanted to learn, try out various career paths, prepare themselves for the futures that they wanted.  Everyone would be doing different things, at different times, so there would be no basis for comparison.  People would learn to read when they wanted to learn to read, and we would help them do it if they wanted help.  The focus would be on cooperation, not oncompetition.  That’s what occurs at certain democratic schools, which are for learning, not for showing off, and such schools have proven remarkably effective.


One thing we know about learning is that it is inhibited by the kinds of pressures that we use at schools to motivate performance.  Many psychological experiments have shown that contests and evaluations of all sorts lead those who already know well how to perform a task to do it even better than they otherwise would, but has the opposite effect on people who don’t know it so well.

For example, in one research study, conducted many years ago, psychologists observed people playing friendly games of 8-ball at the university’s pool hall.[1]  At first they watched from a distance, so the players wouldn’t know they were being observed, and then they moved in close and observed deliberately, making it obvious that they were evaluating performance.  The result was that those who were already good, when not observed closely, performed even better when they knew they were being evaluated; but those who were just beginners, learning how to play, performed worse when evaluated.  The same has been found for many kinds of tasks—intellectual as well as athletic or manual. Showing off is facilitated by evaluation and contests, but such pressures inhibit learning.  And yet, in our constant attempt (supposedly) to increase learning at school, we keep raising the pressure, and then wonder why it doesn’t work.

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