Judgment

Since I’m writing and filming this just before the school year starts, I’m including my Amazon wishlist at the end of the post. I teach at a school in rural Georgia, so these are things that aren’t so essential that I’m going to get them myself, but that I think would be nice bonuses: multicolored pens and markers, skin-tone crayons and colored pencils, and cooperative games. So, absolutely not essential, but if you do feel like helping out, I would be super grateful!

Image: Haitian-Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka lights the Olympic torch.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Summer Olympics were pushed back a year. They started on July 23, and will continue until August 8. 

The Olympic Games are completely unique. No other event captures the level of prestige and splendor it carries. And while the events are competitions, the sportsmanship and even cooperation shown by the athletes embodies the “spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play” described in the Olympic Charter. 

Image: A photo from the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

The annual tournament for the World Cup attracts almost as many viewers; estimates from 2016 were 3.69 billion for the World Cup and 3.8 billion for the Rio Games. Obviously, that proportion may be more skewed to the World Cup in pretty much any country besides the United States, where unlike the rest of the world, we don’t seem to care too much about soccer, or “football,” as it’s known absolutely everywhere else. Additionally, viewership is likely to drop somewhat in countries whose teams are eliminated from the tournament bracket, though it probably increases in countries still playing as the Cup moves toward the final match. 

But the wide range of competitions involving athletes from many different nations (as well as some non-national groups) means that citizens all over the world can see their country represented throughout the duration of the Games. Larger countries have a greater pool of potential athletes to draw from, but the ongoing variety of events means that smaller countries also have plenty of opportunities to participate and medal as well. 

Image: Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz wins her country’s first-ever gold medal.

As somebody who’s much more interested and involved in the arts than in athletic pursuits, I find myself wishing that something similar existed for creative endeavors. Sure, there are artistic competitions, like the Cannes Film Festival, the Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prizes. But the most well-known of these are typically restricted by field, and in many cases, by nationality as well. 

Additionally, awards like these are typically for completed works. They lack the suspense and immediacy of the Olympics. This has become a much more significant factor with the advent of live broadcasting. Sure, the US has been a dominant force in women’s gymnastics for some time, and Simone Biles seems unstoppable. However, in the team finals, Biles struggled on the vault and then chose not to continue competing to protect her health.

Image: Simone Biles, of the United States, performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women’s final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

The possibility of an upset keeps audiences on their toes almost as much as participants. In reading a novel or watching a film, there is a sense of inevitability, even the very first time. Whatever is going to happen has already been determined; we just aren’t completely certain what it is yet. In contrast, live athletic competition is never a sure thing.

But that’s only part of what makes it interesting. It would be fairly easy to have a live novel-writing competition. However, a room full of people sitting at computers, alternating between typing away furiously, scowling at the screen, and stabbing at the backspace key might not draw large crowds to watch. On the other hand, if that ever becomes a thing, I might have to apply for a job as a commentator. 

“And Poe’s fingers are flying over the keyboard – but wait! He hesitates! He frowns! He leans back in his seat and pulls at his mustache! And it’s JANE AUSTEN whose eyes gleam with inspiration, her teeth clenched in a mad grimace of frenzied curiosity!”

Look, I may not have enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice, but I could make it seem interesting.

Image: A painting of a baseball game in the early twentieth century.

These are some of the factors taken into consideration when the International Olympic Committee determines which events will be included in the Games. Baseball, for example, is incredibly popular in the United States, Venezuela, Korea, and Japan, but not followed as enthusiastically in most of the rest of the world. As a result, its inclusion in the Olympics has been spotty… or, I suppose I should say, “hit or miss.” It hasn’t been in the Summer Olympics since 2008, but as the 2020 Games are being held in Tokyo, Japan was given the opportunity to propose its temporary inclusion, as the host country. 

Image: The striking batsman aims at a pitch from the bowler, while the wicket-keeper stays prepped to catch.

Cricket has similar issues with focused popularity, [image: cricket] being played and watched mostly in south Asia, England, Australia, and several Caribbean nations. However, in addition, there is the practical consideration of time. Traditional cricket matches often last for several days, although there are only about six and a half hours of play on any given day, plus, of course, breaks for lunch… and tea. One must, of course, be civilized. 

Image: Photo of the men’s 100-meter race.

So not every sport is included in the Olympics. And for those that are, there is the additional challenge of adjudication. There are several running events, and the distances are somewhat traditional, but arguably arbitrary. [image: 100] The shortest is the 100-meter, which is reasonable, given the base-ten numeric system that we use. And then the 200, 400, 800… but the 1500 instead of the 1600. Why? I have no idea. Tradition, I suppose. We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.

Image: Photo of the men’s US trials in the 110-meter hurdles.

And then there’s the hurdles: 100 meters and 400 meters – except those are the distances for female competitors. For men, it’s a hundred and TEN meters and 400 meters. Why? Again, no idea. Just because reasons, I guess.

And that’s the track and field events – athletics, for my British viewers! – which are very similar between the men’s and women’s competitions. 

Image: A photo of a female figure skater in mid-jump.

Ice skating is even more similar in the events: individuals for both men and women in figure skating, and then pairs for figure skating and for ice dancing. However, unlike the track and field events, which are measured, ice skating is a scored event. Over the past several decades, judges have awarded higher marks to routines featuring more powerful jumps in contrast to those featuring deeper bends or more innovative spins. Naturally, competitive skaters focus on the elements that will gain them more points. A weak execution of a more challenging jump may result in a higher score than a flawless execution of a less challenging jump. Liz Clarke called it “a cold calculation more than artistic statement: how many additional points a skater earns for attempting the difficult skill weighed against how many fractions of a point he loses for failing to fully rotate it, botching the landing or falling in an ungainly heap.”

Image: A skater who missed her landing, sprawled on the ice.

However, the push toward athleticism over artistry highlights the challenge in judging scored events. It’s far easier to determine whether or not a skater fell than to justify (and quantify) artistic merit. The movie The Cutting Edge illustrates this when Doug and Kate argue over the type of music to use in their program, Kate pushing for something classical, while Doug wants something more modern. When they compete, despite a strong technical performance, they receive low scores for artistic merit, and the movie frames this as a result of the judges’ bias toward tradition.

In The Cutting Edge, this is positioned as an element of class: Kate, the wealthy “princess” who has been figure skating for her whole life, is a foil for Doug, a working-class hockey player whose injury takes him out of the game at an elite level. However, race and gender also influence expectations as well. While recently, the push has been toward athleticism for all skaters, historically, female skaters have seen greater rewards for more “feminine” artistry. In the 1994 world championships, when Surya Bonaly’s more difficult jumps were slighted in favor of Yuka Sato’s “dynamic footwork,” Bonaly refused to stand on the podium. 

Image: Surya Bonaly performing her famous back-flip.

Gymnastics is even more divided. Men and women have only two events in common: vault and floor routine. The vault has the same setup, but the women’s floor routine is twenty seconds longer, and must include music, because they have to incorporate dance skills like jumps and pirouettes. Men just do tumbling passes. In addition, men compete on the pommel horse, the still rings, the parallel bars, and the high bar. Women have two additional events: the uneven bars and the balance beam. 

As in figure skating, scoring methods have changed to focus on difficulty and execution rather than on artistic interpretation. Those of us who are old enough remember the “perfect ten” in gymnastics. Under the new system, each element has a difficulty score, and theoretically, there is no upper limit on the total score. Gymnasts are, however, limited by time as well as the size of the apparatus; there are only so many somersaults you can do before you reach the end of the balance beam! 

As a result, there has been a similar increase in athleticism over the years, as competitors have attempted more and more difficult leaps, twists, and turns in the various events. Gymnasts submit their routines before competing, and the routines are reviewed by two different judges. Each judge independently determines the difficulty value; then, the judges compare their results and come to consensus. Then, during the routine, six judges watch for execution. 

In both figure skating and gymnastics, one of the main reasons for introducing the new scoring systems has been to improve objectivity in judging. And, in a sense, it has been successful. Athletes have a good idea of what their potential score will be before they compete, based on the elements they have included in their routines. You do the routine, you get the elements, you get the points. Simple, right?

Actually… no.

Video: Gymnasts performing the Produnova on vault; any landing in which the feet alone touch the mat first is considered completed, though points are deducted for flaws in execution.

What’s actually happening is that the governing committees are simply re-positioning the subjective elements of judging. For example, the Produnova on vault, which is a handspring double front somersault, is typically considered the most difficult vault ever landed by a female gymnast in competition. It previously had a difficulty score of 7.1, which was lowered to 7.0, and currently stands at 6.4. The Technical Committee of the FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique), which assigns these values, reduced its difficulty score to discourage athletes from relying on that score to compensate for poor execution. This was influenced not only by its difficulty, but its danger; if a gymnast does not rotate fully, a spinal injury is very possible.

Video: Fadwa Mohmoud attempting the Produnova on vault.

Assigning quantitative value to the difficulty of a skill takes what is actually a subjective decision and cloaks it with the illusion of objectivity. This is illustrated by the fact that it’s even possible to artificially deflate a difficulty rating in order to discourage the use of that move in competition. But the truth is that even the most seemingly-objective events in the Olympics are shaped by subjective decisions. The high jump seems incredibly straight forward: how high a bar can the athlete clear? Yet the choice to measure the height of the jump in that way was a subjective decision, as are rules about what constitutes a foul and how much approach space is allowed.

This has clear parallels – and important lessons – for education. 

Image: A multiple-choice test answer sheet being filled in with pencil.

First of all, the practice of assigning numbers and making choices about amounts and goals and decisions, which I’ll call quantification from this point on, is not value-neutral. It is a value judgement. It assigns priority. This leads to de-prioritization and even exclusion of skills that are not easily measurable. We see this in the changes in figure skating and gymnastics with the de-emphasis of artistic interpretation and the earlier decision to not include the previous required element of “compulsory figures,” which is what literally created the sport. Likewise, we see similar effects in education; grade levels and courses that have state-required exams receive greater scrutiny. Elements within these courses that are difficult to test, like verbal communication, are given less time and attention. Even the practice of age-based leveling means that students do not progress based on demonstration of skill, except in the most extreme cases. 

Image: A photo of a young girl holding a paper with fill-in-the-blank responses marked with red checks and an A++ at the top of the paper.

Second, quantification promotes cost-benefit analysis. I do my best to encourage students to find value in learning. However, the practice of quantitative evaluation encourages people in education, as well as parents, community members, and society as a whole to focus on the grade rather than on what was learned. The result is that many students choose to put minimal effort into practice work if it’s not going to be graded, or don’t bother to do it at all. Some students simply want to pass, and calculate how many assignments they can blow off and still scrape by. Now, fortunately, unlike a poorly-prepared attempt at a Produnova, students are not likely to risk injury by focusing on grades rather than their own understanding. But it’s not in their best interests, either.

Additionally, while giving the appearance of clarity and precision, quantification actually adds confusion. Does 80% mean full mastery of 80% of the elements on an assessment or 80% mastery of each element? Or something else? How many points is a comma “worth,” anyway? Evaluation is, at its core, subjective. Suni Lee, the all-around women’s gymnastics champion in the Tokyo Olympics, did not receive a gold medal in each individual event.

Image: Photo of Sunisa Lee with her gold medal for the women’s all-around event.

In fact… the individual events are actually held after the all-around event. Nor did she have the highest score in each of the individual events of the all-around… you know, the point I was making was that quantification increases confusion, and now I’m getting confused, so I’m just going to count this as evidence, and move on!

Image: Photo of three male athletes on the winners’ podium from the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

Finally, and most significantly, quantification supports and encourages ranking. Now, in a competition among adults, who have chosen to participate, maybe we say, that’s perfectly fine. But education is something that children go through, and they do so because we require them to. Throughout their lives, they are evaluated, their actions reduced to letters and numbers. This reinforces a fixed mindset, which is harmful whether the perception is “David is a D student” or “David is an A student.” 

In the first case, the expectation develops that success, if it comes at all, will be marginal, and possibly based on luck. This weakens any reason for effort. In contrast, for an “A student,” success is expected at high levels, and should come “naturally.” Ironically, this also discourages effort, as any struggle brings that innate talent into question. In both cases, students begin to see themselves as defined by their accomplishments.

Image: A screenshot of a tweet from Simone Biles. It reads: the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before. A grey heart is included after the text.

This is what a lifetime of being graded does to people. Simone Biles is far from alone in this. We do this to each other, and to ourselves. People are not eggs or baseball cards. Children do not deserve to be graded and sorted and ranked. Their worth – your worth – is more than the sum of your achievements.

You are enough, just the way you are.


Oof. Wow. That was a LOT. If you’ve stuck with me the whole way through, WOW! Thanks! Leave me a comment? Heck, just pull a Ramona Quimby and say “I can’t believe I read the WHOLE THING!”

Here is a link to my Teacher Wishlist on Amazon:


Links to articles and videos I found useful and relevant to this topic:


You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.

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