A couple of months ago, around the beginning of school summer holidays, on my way to work, I saw a child playing on a slide. He was all alone in the park and for a while, climbed up the ladder and slid down a couple of times, but soon got ‘bored’ with simple ‘sliding’. Instead, he decided to do something that went against all rules of gravity, but which all children attempt, at some point in their lives: to walk up the slide from the bottom.
Over and over again, he tried, with his sandals on, to climb up the slide, and naturally enough, kept slipping and falling, for against the metal slide, his rubber sandals did not give him any grip.
I watched him and realizing what was ‘wrong’ suggested that he try to do this with bare feet. The boy took my suggestion and kicking his sandals off began climbing again. What was interesting was that he was able to go a quarter way up the slide but then because of gravity, began losing balance. However, he did not give up. Again, I suggested that if he were to initially use his hands to help him go up, he could then slowly stand straight and still walk up an incline! Of course, I did not use these words, but that was what I meant.
I don’t think I will ever forget the joy on this boy’s face (Aditya is his name) when, with help (bare feet and hands) he was able to actually reach the top of the slide, and then, of course, climb down the steps to reach the bottom! Having reached the bottom, he immediately came round and started climbing up the steep incline again!
By the time I came back to have lunch, Aditya had achieved half his target: he must have relentlessly practiced, for now he needed help with his hands only half-way up the slide.
As an activity, as something that all children attempt, there is nothing very new – or different in what Aditya did.
What captured my attention was the goal that he had set himself and what he was doing to achieve it. Probably the youngster had seen some other boy or girl do the same; effortlessly walk up a slide upright; in his mind he had decided that he too should achieve that goal and deterred he would not be!
There were no other competitors, no examinations or tests, and no evaluators. This was not part of any formal, organized sport or part of any co- or extra-curricular activity. This child was only competing against himself and his own self-set goals, and compete he definitely did.
He must have started around half-ten in the morning and by lunch time had achieved a certain amount of success. What was his motivation and stimulus? Where did the concentration and the urge to continue practicing come from? The initial suggestion or ‘help’ was mine; the rest his own effort. Once he had mastered going up the slide with bare feet and hands, little by little, he stopped using his hands and began straightening his back.
Two days ago, (mid June) I happened to see Aditya on the slide again and what I saw was amazing. This youngster must have relentlessly practiced, and had obviously set very high standards for himself, for now he was able to practically ‘run’ up the slide from the bottom to the top, run down the ladder steps and then start all over again. He very casually did this a couple of times, and then, catching sight of me, didn’t say a word but gave me a ‘see what I can now do look’, and did one more ‘bottom to top of the slide run’, grinned with satisfaction, and left.
I may or may not bump into Aditya again, but I will never forget the lesson he taught me.
Thousands of children, I am sure, have attempted this on millions of slides around the world, with more or less success; needing more or less time. Some may have given up, many others happy with the sense of balance that they achieved and a few others probably gone on to even become acrobats and gymnasts, or sportspersons. The level of success they demanded of themselves is their own. Benjamin Bloom, way back in the 1970s, talked about mastery learning, about not competing with anyone else but only with oneself, to better one’s own performance, until we are satisfied with what we have achieved. For Aditya, success, in this activity, meant being able to run up a slide standing upright. For another, it could even be attempting the same feat on a jungle gym and for a third, walking up a steep rock face.
When we compete against others, as we are forced to do, our success indicators are external, but the sweetest success, I suspect, is when we compete against ourselves.
The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.