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A few things recently have got me thinking about the relationship between 'world class' achievement, notions of excellence, and education. We can't all, by definition, be the best, but as a society we share in the excellence of our highest achievers. This is why we watch sport, appreciate brilliance in the arts, and take pride in hosting the Olympics. But how do we harness the inspiration that we find in other people's excellence to inspire ourselves to be the best we can be, even though we accept we'll never be that good? Is a competitive model (while useful in some respects) enough?

A few things recently have got me thinking about the relationship between 'world class' achievement, notions of excellence, and education. We can't all, by definition, be the best, but as a society we share in the excellence of our highest achievers. This is why we watch sport, appreciate brilliance in the arts, and take pride in hosting the Olympics. But how do we harness the inspiration that we find in other people's excellence to inspire ourselves to be the best we can be, even though we accept we'll never be that good? Is a competitive model (while useful in some respects) enough?

It hit the news earlier in the month that Lance Armstrong casually told his followers on Twitter that he was going on a bike ride near Glasgow, should anyone care to join.

About 300 people turned up for the ride. The genius of the gesture was that a bike ride is something people do as a family, when they are children, or when older with your mates to the pub. What Armstrong did was to connect his highly technical, expensive, competitive and tortuous sport to the everyday experience of millions of people. Participation and competition do not need to be mutually exclusive.

A second contribution: some time ago Tod Machover of MIT came to the RSA to talk about the Future of Music. He spoke of the limited nature of the modern music industry where those with talent (or selling power) are elevated to enormous heights above the average listener of music. Machover argues for a new ecology of music where world class musicians engage in a more positive interaction with their audience so that rather than simply being passive consumers of music, more people participate in and create it. Machover cites the example of Radiohead's remix project where the band (who have acquired almost god-like status among music fans) provide the 'stems' of selected tracks from their new album free online for the public to download, remix and then share. They even provide the software to do it with. The public then vote on their favourite remix - and everyone is a winner.

These two examples of world class performers engaging with the public in a way that has the potential to inspire millions must surely make us think about how we encourage achievement in education.

The problem is that we are moving in the opposite direction - increasing restrictions on contact between young people and adults have resulted in key literary figures boycotting schools. Television shows such as The X Factor and industries like football show ordinary people elevated to extraordinary fame, but do not create new relationships between the famous and the rest.

If we want to inspire young people - in school or out of school - then we could start, as a society, by thinking about how we offer them a future not as winners or losers as the current competitive model might suggest, but as participants in a society that is capable of amazing things.

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