Coming from a small town, there was always an interesting dynamic in our school classrooms. Most of my classrooms were small, maybe 20-25 people total, which made for both an intimate learning experience but also one that could be challenging if you not only were a high performer but also suffered from social anxiety. Most people would think an intimate classroom would be a great opportunity for students but for me I felt it was more of a challenge for a different reason. I did well in school, being for the most part a solid “A” student. On the social side, I was far more on the geek end of the spectrum than the popular end. Standing out in a classroom as someone who understood their Shakespeare or excelled in biology could make life difficult outside the classroom. It was for that reason that I often held back in the classroom – why stand out in the crowd when it resulted in being made fun of? By drawing as little attention to myself as possible, I felt I could slide through school with ease. I could do my homework and excel that way and avoid the social stigma of being a “dork”.
Pivovarova (2014) in a recent article discussed the impact of peers on learning and environment, whether mixing levels of achievement in the classroom had negative/positive impacts on those individuals (p. 2). Besides the fact that Pivovarova (2014) looked at 6th graders from Ontario, Canada where I’m from, her findings were interesting in the ways in which peers influenced each other for good or bad, for example, in how a student who was a low achiever may perform better surrounded by high performers and how a high performer was somewhat of an “independent learner” (p. 19) in the classroom. This idea of “low” or “high” performers to me took on a different meaning. Why was someone performing lower than another student? I was performing at a high level despite my terror of what that performance would result in outside the classroom but what else could be going on within the other students lives.
Reading this article and with influence from recent discussions in my Doctoral classes, I began to wonder what other issues could be creating low versus high performance. Maybe these “low” performers had challenges not linked to the classroom that were impacting their lives in a way that made it hard to focus on school (family dynamics, money, health). Would putting them in a classroom with a “high” performer really help? What if there was a learning challenge (A.D.D., language barrier) that created issues and that student wasn’t receiving the support they needed. What if just the label of being a “low” performer created a perception that they couldn’t achieve success and created a ceiling that prevented development? My school was also a predominantly white school in a predominantly white farming community in Canada. For those few students of color, I began to wonder what challenges they may have faced in a white institution in a predominantly white town – were they getting fair treatment and access to the same resources or were they being marginalized within the school?
Looking back it makes me wonder about all the challenges and what “low” and “high” performance could really mean when it’s not such a cut and dry term. I realized that none of these ideas had crossed my mind as a child as I was too preoccupied in my own world. As I move forward in my educational journey, I find myself begin to question beyond just the surface issues of a situation to understand what other layers may exist that are far more pressing than was apparent. I hope that the courses continue to influence me towards a better understanding of all the dynamics a situation may hold, whether it be similar to this article in a classroom setting or within my own research pursuits and I hope that this understanding provides the fairness needed to represent all the individuals that may be impacted by that research.
Pivovarova, M (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Tempe: Arizona State University.
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Joel, I really enjoyed reading this. Like you, our doctoral study has prompted me to look back on my earliest school years and experiences with new eyes. I think you also raise some great points about how powerful and self-fulfilling a label can be for a kid in school.