Gladwell, pupil happiness and lying about the class average

In my school, when pupils receive their final report for the year, it includes two numbers for each subject: the percentage they achieved in their end-of-year assessment and the class average. (There is a legitimate debate around the merits of including the class average, but let’s leave that to one side for a moment.)

One of the consequences of this approach is that it seems to make pupils more likely to ask me for the class average when receiving their marked tests throughout the year. I tend to evade this question, but today I had a thought about how it might present an opportunity.

First, we need to take a brief detour via Malcolm Gladwell.

One of the recent episodes from Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’ podcast is called ‘The Happiness Lab’. It’s led by a professor of psychology from Yale University. The central argument running through the episode is that our happiness has a lot to do with how our successes and achievements compare with those around us.

One example offered is Olympic medalists. The silver medalist tends to be the least happy person on the podium, knowing they were just shy of gold. Conversely, the bronze medalist tends to be happier than the silver medalist, because the bronze medalist came closest to not winning a medal at all.

I can put it in cruder, every-day terms: Insofar as money has any connection to our happiness, it tends to not be in absolute terms, but in relative ones. I can be as happy on £30,000 a year as £100,000 a year, providing my friends and colleagues are paid less than me in both instances.

This got me thinking about averages in the classroom. What if, when during the year I am asked for the class average by a pupil, I lie? Instead of telling the truth, I instead provide a low estimate of the class average. What effect might that have?

Here’s what I (tentatively) predict to be the benefits:

  1. Pupils will generally be happier about their own performance. A higher number of happy pupils will more likely lead to a happier classroom environment
  2. This general improved happiness will make pupils care less about their performance compared with their close friends (Less: ‘What did you get? What did you get?’) as even if they performed worse than their peer, they think they did above-average in the whole class context
  3. As pupils are less concerned by their performance against their close friends, but are happier generally, they are more likely to focus on how they can continue to improve their own work in the subject

(I am conscious these predictions get increasingly tenuous as you go down the list.)

Some problems I foresee:

  1. This involves me lying directly to the pupils. It’s not a white lie, it’s a bald one. One way around this is to give them the mode or median rather than the mean (which is what they assume I would give them), but this potentially won’t provide the low number I want to ensure pupils’ happiness.
  2.  Repeated too frequently, the collective ego/self-belief of the class could become detached from reality. At some point, reality will kick in – and hurt more.
  3. There is a high chance that this could just be a fundamentally stupid idea

As with any ‘interesting thought’ it is only honed to a point of usefulness through reflection, discussion and others’ thoughtful criticisms.

Please leave a comment or write a note if you are so inclined.



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