I wrote a while ago that I considered social deviants in Japan to be the best English students and usually the only ones prepared to learn effectively (i.e. not by studying as if for a discrete-point exam). Then at the last JALT meeting we were talking a bit about low-level, ne’er-do-well students leapfrogging their more “proper” peers when communicative competence finally became part of their English classes (usually in university) and it put me in mind of discussions of deviance I used to have in my 20s studying criminology. Specifically in this case, I was reminded of the similarities between a mean-based testing regime and social deviance. We tend to think of underachievement and social deviance as things to be reduced or eliminated but the definitions of testing regimes and societies mean that some amount of failure is built into both.
Societies have norms; otherwise they’re just collections of non-interacting people. These norms produce deviance, or non-mainstream behavior, simply as a result of society not being composed of clones and because societies like to know where their borders lie. Mainstream behavior and deviance are given moral value as normality is conflated with moral good, and abnormality with bad. A law is often the mechanism for mainstream society to show its disapproval of deviance, hence the illegality of deviant but victimless behaviors such as (until recently) homosexual partnerships . If you object to gay marriage being called “deviant” it is because you subconsciously accept the conflation of deviance with immorality, proving my point. Objectively speaking, deviance is always both immoral and also value-free; always immoral because every society considers its own deviance immoral, and value-free because every society has different norms and therefore different concepts of deviance.
Now look at the sorting mechanisms that produce the curves of scores admitting students to various “high-level” or “low-level” universities (and high schools, in Japan) as a similar norm-based system of evaluation. Without getting into the validity of the tests used, some students will score high and have greater opportunities for success, some will score low and go straight into the workforce, and most will score around the average. In Japan, schools use a score normalized at 50 called 偏差値 hensachi, with each increment of 10 points representing one standard deviation above or below the average (70 being two SDs above average, roughly 2% of the population and good enough for top-ranked schools – the science department at Tokyo University has a hensachi of 80. A private university like the one I previously worked at will have a hensachi of between 40 and 60).
Of course, if everyone does well on a given test and the average score is 90 out of 100 with a SD of 3, you need to be almost perfect to get into the best colleges, and a score of 80% excludes you from almost all reputable institutions despite you getting 4/5 of the answers right. An increase in the average would say good things about the quality of education in Japan, but it wouldn’t help individual students who would now have a higher average to meet or exceed in order to beat hensachi 50. There are of course always about equal numbers of people above and below average – there is no mathematically possible way to improve the scores of the set of below-average students or to reduce the number of below-average scorers without also raising the average. Just like social norms necessarily produces deviance, the existence of averages necessitates people falling below them, regardless of the particulars of what those averages are. University admissions, because they are based on individual scores as compared to the average rather than to some minimum standard of achievement, necessarily result in a fairly stable amount of failure.
In both cases these logically necessary components of the system are considered morally inferior, although their existence is a logical necessity and norms or averages could not exist without them. I’ve taught plenty of low scorers (and social deviants) in my time and always want to reassure them that their “failure” is as necessary to the existence of society as someone else’s “success”. Hard to phrase that in a way that doesn’t come off mansplainingly.
Depending on your life experience, this similarity may strike you in different ways:
- The normal curve is a telling metaphor for society, or
- Social deviance is a telling metaphor for exams, or
- Nothing surprising at all (many of my posts recently have had the whiff of either something profound hiding in plain sight or just something everyone but me has already noticed but refrained from commenting on).
I’ll get a little more into how the concept of deviance applies to ELT beyond the similar shapes of graphs depicting social deviance and test scores in another post.