08 July 2005

A Little Unhealthy Competition?

I must admit that I have rarely had students enter competitions. Educators know that opportunities abound for nearly every kid, but it seems like time and curriculum constraints often get in the way. I do encourage individual students to try their hands at some of the different options that come my way (especially if scholarship money is involved), but I don't make these things whole-class assignments. I do, however, play games with kids to review material. I'm not sure if that counts as "competition" or not.

A recent article in the American School Board Journal (ASBJ) claims that competition is bad because (in part) it "brands every kid a loser but one." Yes, competition does imply that there will be "winners" and "losers," but is that such a terrible thing? I don't hear anyone claiming that we should rid ourselves of athletic events because someone is going to have to lose. Isn't learning to be a gracious loser part of life (even for non-athletes)? Or is all of this worry a fall out of NCLB, which tells us that every kid must be an equal winner? Are we back to the whole "don't use red ink" thing because it makes kids feel bad?

The author of the ASBJ article does make a few good points.
  • Competition (in the classroom) focuses too heavily on extrinsic motivation.
  • When students are just acquiring new knowledge and skills, competition is counterproductive to learning.
  • Both high and low achievers can feel negatively pressured by competition due to teacher expectations.

As you might imagine, she goes on to stress the improved quality of learning occuring in "cooperative" classrooms. These would be represented by classrooms where there is "an investment of time in which students discuss the purpose of their lessons, how they plan to learn new material, and what they will do to produce high-quality work," with the "key [being] to plan ways to involve every student in learning, beginning with the first minute of every class."

Hey, I'm all for this. Find me a teacher who wouldn't be thrilled to have every kid intrinsically motivated to be involved with their learning every day. I'm just not so sure that competition doesn't have it's place. I have to tell you that in my experiences over the years that I have found that boys (in general) very much enjoy competition. Too much touchy-feely cooperative stuff and they shut down. (I realize what a broad and sexist statement that is...just keep in mind it's anecdotal. But then, the author of the ASBJ article doesn't back up her claims with any data, either.) When I started teaching, everyone was still in the "make science 'girl friendly'" mode. I think we've gone a little too far with that. But even more importantly, one of the things that "play" teaches us is how to win and lose with the little grace...and understand that while we can't win all things all the time, we aren't losers all the time, either. It seems to me that's a healthy thing for any kid's self-esteem to have.

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