Naomi Alderman on competitive sport

Naomi Alderman, a regular Guardian columnist, on one of my pet hates in popular attitudes to education - the emphasis on the supposed value of competitive sport. I’m sure we’ve all heard the attacks on the alleged “all must have prizes” culture (Melanie Phillips wrote a book by that title, attacking the trend), but competition is only a small part of what physical education should be about, namely keeping the children fit. Basing it all around competition is guaranteed to associate it with humiliation for those less able. (I agree, since my favourite “sport” at school was cross-country; putting myself in front of a flying ball in a field full of much more physically mature kids, some of them more than willing to use fists when the usual means of getting the ball failed, was never my cup of tea.)

As someone who went to school in the 70s and 80s, I can’t say that I noticed much of a “medals for all” culture myself. Physical education was taught in much the same way it’s always been taught: team games, captains picking their sides, and the inevitable segregation between those who are good at games and are picked first and those rejects left shuffling uncomfortably while the captains try to decide between the fat child, the child in glasses or the child puffing on an inhaler. In other words, physical education was taught in a way guaranteed to give at least some of the children lasting exercise-phobia. …

To get some sense of the damage this can cause, imagine if we taught maths using the same method. Every lesson would start with two maths captains picking their teams - inevitably leaving those known to be bad at maths to the end. The rest of the lesson would be taken up with public competition in mental arithmetic. Get a sum wrong, and not only would you show yourself up in front of your classmates, but you’d let your team down, too. And as for slow and steady progress, improving your skills and working on your weak spots? Forget it, there’s no time for that. There’s a reason we don’t teach maths like this; it’s because we think maths is too important for us to risk leaving some children behind by creating an association in their minds between maths and public embarrassment.

Of course, children who enjoy competitive sports should have the chance to play them, learn new skills and improve their performance. They should be encouraged to take that interest as far as they can. This country has a rich heritage and tradition in sport; both as participants and as whole-hearted supporters. We can all be tremendously proud of our Olympic athletes, of their determination and abilities. But competitive sport is really just one tiny offshoot of PE. Children who enjoy maths should be encouraged to pursue that interest as far as they can, too - to a professional level, if they want. But most of us don’t need the skills of professional mathematicians. What we need are basic mathematical life-skills: the ability to plan a journey to get somewhere at the correct time, to make a budget, to work out that paying £20 a month over a year for a £120 TV isn’t a good bargain.

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