When you try to please everyone, you can end up pleasing no one

This week, I was thinking about Aesop’s Fable, “ The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass “ while I was reflecting on my parenting skills at the end of another 168 hours of lockdown…

If you are not familiar with the story, a miller and his son take their ass to the market to sell it, and along the way they meet several individuals or groups of people who comment or criticize them on their trip. The miller and his son adjust their journey following each of the comments or criticisms: when told they should be riding the ass, the miller puts his son on the ass; when criticized for not respecting the aged, the miller replaces himself on the ass; when criticized for being lazy, the miller then lets his son ride behind him; and when told they could more easily carry the ass rather than have it carry them, they proceed to tie the legs of the beast and haul it around with a pole. As they cross a bridge near the town, the townsfolk laugh at the sight before them and the commotion frightens the ass which breaks free of the restraints and tumbles into the river.

The moral of the story is that if you try to please everyone, you can end up pleasing no one.

I think this has been a fair reflection on my efforts this week to try and please the various members of my family. Everything I tried to do this week to please one member of the family just triggered an issue with another. So when I (thoughtfully) agreed for my two eldest children to stay up 30 minutes beyond their normal bedtime, I was not expecting the high-pitched objections from the youngest one. Likewise, when I negotiated a complex peace deal allowing the youngest child to choose the TV channel the next day, I was not expecting the rebellion that ensued. Then, in an attempt to broker some peace and quiet, I finally acquiesced to learn how to play Minecraft with all 3 children, which eventually led to me trying to entertain my (feeling left out) wife by showing her I could still do a head-stand. Except I couldn’t still do a head-stand. And I ended up expending 60 of those 168 lock-down hours in bed and a further 5 with a chiropractor. Only Aesop was laughing at that point.

Outside the home, I can see that I am not the only one trying hard to please. As an international educator, I am watching and waiting to see what will happen with international exams this year, in response to the prevailing realities of COVID. As you might expect, there is an incredible amount of commentary about it across the news and social media. The current position is that there are many international schools and students who are in a position where they could complete examinations this summer, as well as many schools that simply can not, either because of a lack of teaching hours or because schools are not safe to open. So, canceling exams will lead to criticism from those that are ready, and running exams will lead to criticism from those that can not. It’s a complex situation and I am glad it is not my problem to solve…

As things stand, it appears that the only way to please everyone is to have different methods to obtain a final grade — some achieved through teacher/school grades and some achieved through examinations. The problem with this dilemma is that we are being presented with a two-tier system, both of which will claim to provide a fair grade to students. But even with all the best will in the world, there is going to significant grade-inflation where results are based on teacher/school grades and this will mean that results from sitting examinations will surely have to be compensated in some way (perhaps an AI algorithm? Too soon?) to ensure that there is parity for all students. Then there will be bias to deal with…questions with equity…moderation procedures…and so on. I am still not sure who will take on the role of the ‘ass’ just yet…because this story is not finished just yet.

One might be tempted to take Aesop’s Fable and conclude that it’s better to not bother listening to criticism at all — but I think that would be missing the point. Dealing with criticism is an essential component of any learning process — it drives continuous innovation and presents us with perspectives that we may not have thought about. But when we react to criticism merely as a means of trying to satisfy a particular commentator or group, things usually go horribly wrong.

And while the Miller and myself may not have heeded Aesop’s message, there’s still time for the thinkers and decision-makers behind international school exams to navigate a sensible route through it all, ignoring the distractions and loud voices, and make sure that all students get what they deserve — and that’s a fair and equitable opportunity to show that they can do this summer.

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