Today, we ask how many points to take off. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The 1996 Olympic Games have
been driving me nuts. If I have to watch one more
little girl break down and cry because she bounced
when she landed, I'll switch channels to
professional wrestling! I just watched a young man
leave the hard floor and do three somersaults in
midair. It was a violation of physics that boggles
the mind. But when he finally fell from the sky, he
took one backward step. That single glitch blew him
out of competition.
This is no longer about real excellence. It's about
the far drearier business of tedious perfection.
The only way you can be perfect is to be cautious
and conservative. I call what I'm watching, the
Points-Off mentality. You start off with a score of
10 and then work your way down. I guess if you do
nothing, you'll stay a perfect 10 forever.
Some Olympic events are untroubled by Points-Off
thinking. When you race, you race against the
clock. When you high-jump or long-jump, you're out
to beat gravity any way you can. And that process
can lead to invention. At some point a high jumper
thought of pitching his body over the bar backward
and landing on his back. When that happened, a
whole new world opened up to athletes.
But gymnasts, divers, and most ice-skaters are
dedicated to being perfect. Children who live to
please adults by being perfect suffer whether
they're athletes or not. I worry far less about
beating up young bodies than I do about beating up
Points-Off thinking isn't limited to the Olympics.
We teachers are painfully aware that the graduate
who goes on to greatness was often a C student. We
too do a lot of Points-Off grading. Yet how can
anyone be both a risk-taker and a straight-A
If the purpose of grading Olympic athletes is to
identify a champion, the purpose of school grades
is to drive learning. Very different objectives but
Points-Off thinking undermines them both! Any
teacher worthy of the name likes to see students
who don't care about grades or any other rewards
that come from outside. Good teaching means
fostering learning that satisfies a craving inside
the student. It means helping students to find that
But that's so hard to do. It's difficult the way
trying to grade a gymnast is. It's so much harder
than deducting points for moving a leg when you
land on the mat. Points-Off is the easy way -- to
raise a child, to rank a research proposal, to tell
right from wrong. Points-Off is worse than just
avoiding the real content of human accomplishment.
It's the way we tell children that action simply
gives them a way -- to slip out of first place.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds