The Big Door Prize: Conceptualising Potential in Education as an “Arrow”

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


If you could know your life’s potential, would it change how you live? This is one of the questions posed in Apple TV’s series The Big Door Prize (Walker et al, 2023), adapted from the MO Walsh book (2020) of the same name. The residents of a small town become fascinated by the MORPHO machine that appears mysteriously one night and, for the princely sum of two dollars, dispenses small blue cards with the promise of revealing the life potential of the holder. Consequently, the townsfolk embark on a collective odyssey to understand what is meant by “life potential” with sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic, results.
Potential is something that features often in education discourse, probably because education itself could never begin without an assumption that the student has the potential to participate in it.
However, it is not always clear which notion of potential is being invoked in this discourse. Considering, for example, the rhetorical ubiquity of “fulfilling one’s potential”, it could perhaps be said to be a finite void within an individual into which all educational efforts should be funnelled. Such fulfilment may be an admirable goal, but it is less clear what happens when maximum potential is reached – humanistic psychologists such as Maslow may term this rare achievement self-actualisation. Potency itself, though if we take the word at its root, can only ever be a suggestion of possibility since an overt expression of potential becomes an action; therefore, the potential becomes lost in its own affirmation, leading to a logical absurdity that those who have fulfilled their potential also have none. At the opposite end of the continuum, most teachers would likely balk at any mention of a student with “no potential” – almost as unicorn-like as those whose potential has been entirely fulfilled.
In this paper, I will embrace this confusion, and follow how the characters’ notions of potential change in The Big Door Prize, from their belief in the beginning of a fixed quality held within an individual to its ending as an “arrow” – a notion that could be ambiguously interpreted. I will frame this journey using Israel Scheffler’s (1985) comprehensive conceptualisation “Of Human Potential”.
Period13 Sept 2023
Event titleCrystallising Education, Philosophy and Popular Culture - A Seminar Series
Event typeSeminar