Of Alphas, Betas & Gammas

December 15, 2007

Our school system is a beautiful invention. After a brief period of comprehensive elementary education it takes a brief moment to evaluate the academic abilities of the children and divides them into three groups. The Alphas, the Betas and the Gammas, which should roughly translate to the brainy, the skillful and the craftsmen. The young and aspiring students are therefore sorted and sent to three different schools, the Gymnasium, which in Germany has nothing to do with physical exercise but is the school that is the supposed to prepare its students for university, the Realschule and the Hauptschule, both of which should qualify its students to take up an apprenticeship after school, whereas the Realschule has a stronger focus on theoretical knowledge and the Hauptschule a focus on hands-on education.
In theory, this system isn’t bad. Students are treated according to their talents and given a practical education. A physicist doesn’t need to know how to operate a cnc boring machine and a car mechanic doesn’t need to be able to solve differential equations.
Practically the system is crap. Instead of taking the children’s abilities in account and sorting them accordingly they are measured by what elementary teacher estimate their intellectual capacity to be. Traditionally this is done by the two yard sticks of mathematics and linguistic competence. There is more than one thing wrong with this method.

First of all, I consider most teachers to be very incapable of evaluating someone elses intelligence, as weird as this might sound. The reason for this is very simple: I have been a pupil. I am at college to get a teaching degree and I have been an intern at a Gymnasium this fall. I know lots of teachers and I know lots of people who are going to be teachers. On average teachers just aren’t terribly intelligent. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think teachers are stupid. Just about average. With that most teachers lack the capability to understand the way very intelligent people function. Measuring intelligence is something that probably should be done by psychologists and even they struggle at a sound method to do so. Teachers mostly just try testing if the children remembered the nonsense they told them. If a student happens to be intelligent enough to realize that the teacher is BSing them (mostly involuntarily) and refuses to reiterate that kind of BS he or she’s basically gone. I remember one incident that happened to a friend, where the teacher told the children that strawberries are berries. This of course is utterly wrong and the poor fellow told the teacher so (by the way, blackberries and raspberries aren’t berries either). You know what’s coming up… the teacher has to be right, the kid revolts, the parents have to be called in for a meeting etc, which leads me to the already stated bold thesis that averagely intelligent people have a hard time estimating the intelligence of a highly intelligent person without professional help. This effect should be even amplified if the smarter person is lower on the hierarchy (BTW: Can anyone tell me why a teacher is supposed to be higher on the hierarchy? Isn’t the student kind of the client of the teacher?).

Second: Most experts agree that the age of 10 is way to early to determine whether someone should rather become a rocket scientist or a car mechanic. Kids develop differently. Some grow faster physically, some mature faster emotionally, some lack behind intellectually but the outcome five years from that point might still be completely different from what it looked like at that early point. If you throw in some other negative interferences such as dyslexia or an attention deficit disorder and combine it with a dysfunctional social background it becomes almost impossible to evaluate a kids intellectual potential. Fortunately teachers have realized the latter problems and take these aspects into consideration. Unfortunately most German schools do not have staff to deal with these problems. Most German schools don’t have “real” pedagogues (e.g. social pedagogues or teachers with a degree in special education) on their staff and any teacher at a Gymnasium who calls himself a pedagogue after having finished regular university education is a complete ass and rightfully deserves to be kicked in the crotch. People don’t run around calling themselves engineer after having taken a woodworking class, either.

Third: Hopefully some of you might have already noticed this. By evaluating a childs intelligence to determine which school it should go to our system establishes a hierarchy based on little empirical evidence that has fatal consequence. Obviously the German school system does not officially divide kids into Alphas, Betas and Gammas. But inofficially it does. Instead of the brainy, the skillful and the craftsmen, the children are divided into smart, averagely intelligent and dumb. Even if teachers were capable of making that distinction, this still results in an interesting shift. Nobody wants to be dumb (and most people aren’t as dumb as teachers like to coin them to be). Therefore nobody wants to go to Hauptschule and parents who care a little for their children do all they can do to not have to send their kids there. So mostly kids with tremendous intellectual deficits or an instable social background end up there. If we stick to our analogy this means we have a school full of Deltas and Epsilons. The remaining “Gammas” might even drop to Delta-level because in an environment of Deltas and Epsilons it suddenly becomes very unfashionable to have academic success. If any Betas or Alphas should accidently end up in that pool.. not good. A major percentage of German teenagers are being denied a reasonable education and a positive outlook on having a job and a successful career later.

There are ways out of this situation and some measures are already being taken but I assume that’s enough to fill up another blogpost so I’ll just quit for today and I’m looking forward to your comments.