Monday, January 17, 2011

Competition is for the strong. Public education is for everyone. See the problem?

Competition may be a part of life. Yet some educators don't want it to be a part of learning.
This quote was taken from a National Post article titled Don't tear out the trophy case.

At first glance, such a quote might invoke a "hell yeah! What are those hippy-teachers up to? Why can't they get their heads out of the clouds (and their asses) and understand that school is about preparing children for the real world."

After all, the real world is ripe with competition...

... but maybe, just maybe, there's more to this.

Reflecting upon one's beliefs can be a very productive use of time, and I can think of no better time to do so than when we have come to mindlessly accept something as a given truth. Questions are no longer answered because questions are no longer being asked.

Aflie Kohn challenges us to question the conventional wisdom surrounding competition in his book No Conflict and his article titled Is Competition Ever Appropriate in a Cooperative Classroom?
Finally, some educators acknowledge the destructiveness of competition but insist that they are doing children a favor by having them compete since this will prepare them for the rivalry they will encounter when they leave school. To this we can respond as follows:

(1) Students in our society already are very well acquainted with competition. Even if some experience with it were useful, children have more than they could ever need outside of the classroom. Our challenge is not to offer them more of the same but to provide alternative arrangements to help them achieve a sense of perspective about the competition that proliferates in our culture.

(2) While a case can be made that students would benefit from a curricular unit in which they explicitly consider the effects of competition, talking about it is quite different from immersing them in it. By way of analogy, consider the distinction between teaching children about religion and indoctrinating them to be religious. The justification of competition casts it in terms of the former, but the actual practice looks more like the latter.

(3) The notion that we best prepare children for unpleasant experiences by providing them with unpleasant experiences at a tender age is exactly as sensible as the proposition that because the environment is teeming with carcinogens, children ought to be exposed to as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they are young. In fact, the psychological benefits of failure are overrated; it is an experience that quickly becomes redundant and gratuitously punishing. Making children compete in order to teach them to cope calls to mind an ironic notice I once saw tacked to a wall in a sixth-grade classroom: The Beatings will continue until morale improves.

(4) Even to the extent that some experience with failure is useful, let us remember that failure does not require losing any more than success requires winning. As far as I am aware, no evidence exists to suggest that the particularly toxic form of failure that comes from being defeated by someone else provides any psychological benefit beyond what could be derived from failing with reference to absolute standards or one's own expectations.

(5) Finally, while we want to cushion children from the effects of the adversarial experiences to which they will be subjected once they have left school, we also want to prepare them to evaluate and, if necessary, change the systems that create those experiences. Our choices about classroom structures should not depend primarily on how well they match our society's institutions. Rather, our institutions should stand or fall depending on how well they serve the sort of values represented by cooperative learning.

Critics of this move away from competition might suggest that we are de-valuing excellence - to this I say that abolishing competition in favor of collaboration is not about devaluing anything, rather it is about understanding that setting children against each other is destructive. In other words, there is nothing honest or pragmatic about a classroom that defines success in a way that artificially ensures that one person can succeed only if others fail.

Critics will also say that abolishing competition will only smother children in a cloak of mediocrity. To this I ask the critics why they devalue something simply because everyone can acheive it? Do we wear dropout rates as a badge of honour? I would hope not. So why do we scoff at schools that celebrate every student and refuse to turn students into winners and losers?

Kohn explains:

The central message of all competition is that other people are potential obstacles to one's own success. Competition creates envy for winners, contempt for losers, and hostility and suspicion toward just about everyone. Not only is it irrational to help someone whose success might require your failure, but competition creates a climate in which such help is unlikely to occur in any case. Researchers have found that competitive structures reduce generosity, empathy, sensitivity to others' needs, accuracy of communication, and trust. These results follow naturally and logically from competition itself; the problem does not rest with the individuals involved and the way they approach a contest. Moreover, contests between teams teach that the only reason to work with others is to defeat another group of people who are working together. Cooperation becomes the means; victory is the end.

Investing in collaboration and abolishing competition is no more an exercise in mediocrity than believing all children should graduate from high school.

Focus too much on the 'now' and you'll be sure never to arrive any where else.
There comes a time when reason must trump tradition.

Competition is for the strong. Public education is for everyone. See the problem?


  1. You may want to read George Lakoff's "Don’t Think of an Elephant" at . He talks about "two different models of the family: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family."

  2. I really enjoyed Lakoff's article. Thank you for introducing me to his work. I shall have to blog on it.


  3. After reading AK's No Contest the argument that we have to prepare kids for the real world , a competitive environment does not hold.

    Ak's No Contest has been around for at least 20 years and his argument that the real world is not about competition is even more true today - networking , 21st skills of collaboration, problem solving, creativity are important.

    Discipline approaches like Ross Greene's CPS - collaborative problem solving , book= ' Lost at school has been challenged as not preparing kids for the real world and setting them up for failure . The real world is a plan A world= follow instructions , respect authority and take the consequences for non-compliance or rewards for doing what you have been told to do.

    Ross Greene is not so sure that it is a Plan A world. In fact it is worth wondering which skill is more important for life in the real world - blind adherence to authority trained with Plan A or working things out with people in a realistic and mutually satisfactory manner trained with Plan B = cps , I humbly suggest it is the latter.

    2nd - we are using Plan b to teach skills that the kid lacks so he can handle problems he faces in the real world - Ross Greene ' Lost at school'

  4. Anon,
    Thanks for sharing the Lakoff article , reminds me of AK's article ' how not to teach values '

    Ak as a progressive takes on both conservatives and liberals


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