Monday, July 30, 2018

Follow the Leader[board]?

image from
It started simply enough. I saw a product that I thought was awesome. But expensive. Expensive enough that I wouldn't just buy one, awesome enough that I really wanted one. But then there was a contest and I could win one. And who doesn't want to win something? So I entered.

This contest, though, wasn't a random drawing. It was a test of skills. A series of questions had to be answered. The questions showed up at all different times, so I was constantly watching my phone. At first I was in the lead. In my head, I had all but won the product. Sometimes the questions were timed so the pressure was on. Sometimes I rushed to answer first and I made careless mistakes. I fell behind, but could still see the goal. Eventually, as other people got started and were successful, I watched them climb on the leaderboard as I dropped. 

When I fell to a position that I thought I couldn't recover from, I stopped participating. I gave up. I even received messages of encouragement from the people running the contest: "Team challenge!" "Bonus for getting others to participate!" Nah. Once winning didn't seem realistic, I just was no longer interested. The contest is still running, but I'm not in the running. Because the goal no longer seems attainable.

I'm not a competitive person by nature. I don't play sports; I don't care about winning games. I have lived the adage, "It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game." In fact, as a speech and debate coach, I am known for the motto "skills, not scores." Still, a couple of weeks ago, I was super enthusiastic about this contest. Now the wind is out of my sails. Watching my progress relative to others deflated my spirit.

This has me thinking about my classroom. What are the ways we add a leaderboard to our classroom? How do we try to use competition to encourage kids to succeed? How do we damage kids with competition, especially when they don't think they can succeed? I once had a student tell me that she wouldn't volunteer to be a peer tutor because helping other students could mean her class rank wasn't as high as it could be if students struggle.

Grades are obviously one way we create a leaderboard. We have honor rolls and awards for kids who earn good grades. Do we equally recognize improvement? Some teachers let other students grade their papers or pass back papers so students become aware of who is on the leaderboard. Even without grades, we subtly use leaderboards through our classroom behaviors. We use webtools that create leaderboards for us. We call on students who know the "right answers," reinforcing the leaderboard.

How do these structures, and others, motivate a struggling student, a student who, like me in the contest, has decided that there is no way to win so she might as well give up? As I head back to school this fall, this is what I am carefully considering. I'm looking for ways to level the playing field, to help everyone focus on skills, not scores, with very little competition, so that everyone feels they can succeed.

I've written this post to submit to this virtual math teaching conference. I think it is important to talk - and think - about who is succeeding at math and why they are successful. How can what we do in our classrooms bring equity to students? And how can we help students realize their potential? But the conversation is obviously not limited to math. These questions apply to all subjects, all classrooms. What are you doing to eliminate the leaderboard in your classroom?


  1. I really enjoyed this post. It makes me think about how the “leaderboard” impacts our part-time students at the community college who are trying to balance school, family and work. How do we make them feel as if they cannot win, so why play.

  2. My 10th and 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Ligon, announced when returning our first quiz of the year, "There's one word that I hate. Whadyaget? You will NOT ever say this word in my classroom. It is your job to learn and improve, not compare your progress to others!" This was in 1990 and 1991.

    I still tell my students the same thing.