Skip to content

The Curious Teacher

An aspiring teacher, exploring the dynamics of education, with the student at the center

You can compete ’til the cows come home, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll learn anything above and beyond waiting for more cows to come through the front door. Perhaps this makes a decent euphemism for the conceptual path I’m meandering down..then again, maybe not. I’m in a digressive-state-of-mind at the moment, and basking in every moment, so if this sounds like bird twitter, I can assure you I’m flying in a purposeful direction.

Without further animal metaphors, moving ahead with my more substantive thoughts.

Competition in the classroom might seem a no-brainer for some (it’s a common component of classroom culture in the US, after all), while for others it may prod at least one eyebrow raise and make you go “hmmmm”.

As a burgeoning teacher who certainly grew up in an educational system that seemed to value individual competition more often than not, I happen to be raising and hmmming about this one, and not for the first time.  I dodged NCLB, which was written into legislation one year after I graduated high school, so being a student in this latest era of neck-and-neck, do-or-get-lost-in-a-vicious-cycle is a hair out of my experiential paradigm – but it’s not difficult to witness and imagine the pressure-cooker affect that NCLB has on students (and teachers).

The purpose of competition in the classroom and its direct and indirect effects is rooted in complexity, with various viewpoints and considerations.  There’s the context, or setting, to consider when utilizing; the form of competition being implemented; and the transferred or imbuing effects on the classroom culture, individual internalization, etc.

When you review the tip-of-the-iceberg research (and examine your own past experiences), you realize that there is no “winner takes all” answer when it comes to competition’s role in the classroom.  Individual grades on classroom worksheets or tests, for example, have the potential to be useful assessments of student progress and vehicles for meaningful feedback; they also have the potential to be empty markers that breed “winners” or “losers”.

Both identities have their pitfalls; it’s just as easy for the winner, for whom traditional direct classroom instruction is more easily accessed, to put forth the minimum effort needed to achieve that red A and trump his or her classmates, as it is for the loser to lapse into giving minimum effort, simply because he or she begins to believe “I’ll never understand how this dividing fraction stuff works” or “I’m just not as smart as ____”, both dangerous and unnecessary self concepts that erase like sharpie once they’re written in the mind.

So do I truly believe that competition has no right to be cultivated in a classroom?  No, that wouldn’t be an accurate statement.  What I do believe is that competition, like any other developmental concept or applied teaching strategy, is not monochromatic – meaning, it’s hue changes depending upon the use or purpose.  As teachers, we must educate ourselves – read the research and knowledge available on the nature of competition and its affect in the classroom and society, and test out our own inquiries and refine our ideas based on our own conclusions.

I believe one of the most important differences lies in whether or not competition yields itself to Mastery of focused skills or content or Performance in relation to peers.  Do both have a place in our society?  Of course, no doubt competition (in its broadest sense) is an inherent element of human nature.  And in the classroom?  Yes, under well-chosen circumstances.  But I believe the former lends itself much more smoothly to a receptive and tolerant learning atmosphere that seeks to build solid foundations of knowledge and skills, particularly in the elementary years when children are in the process of building those knowledge-and-skill-based neurological maps.

Even at the secondary level, I hold a firm stance that balancing both types (while yes, leaning slightly more towards the former) is imperative to developing individuals who have the knowledge and ability to truly think for themselves and can actually begin to apply those skills and knowledge in steering their own well-beings.

And of course, I can’t help but wonder if the structure(s) of project-based-type classrooms and schools are ideal breeding grounds for a cooperative sense of competition, the kind that fosters more intrinsic motivation to learn the content; produce the most quality product (through individual contribution combined with knowledge and skills distribution); and to then compare products in a positive-critique fashion – part of the lessons-learned and self-reflective phase, which I have come to realize is (most likely) the most essential element in the long-term learning process.

And in terms of those who insist that competition is an inevitable necessity because it prepares students to go out into the world and compete for jobs, status, and other individual gains in a dog-eats-dog world…a legitimate concern I suppose, but I this Rand-ridden idea can just as legitimately be seen through other eyes…“The unrestricted competition so commonly advocated does not leave us the survival of the fittest. The unscrupulous succeed best in accumulating wealth”, said Rutherford B. Hayes, once upon a time.

When we look through a Hayesian lens, a greater question we can ask ourselves is – as teachers and as human beings who are part of a much greater interconnected web – what exactly do we want our children (and selves) to produce and compete for in life?  And if the answer is something greater than just contributions (no matter how relatively ‘superior’) for the sake of greater material wealth or status, then in what ways should and can we facilitate the development of healthy self-regulation alongside an appreciation for the contributions of every ‘last’ individual student in the classroom?

A  question that is seriously worth milking (you had to know that was coming).

And worthwhile reading that’s right on topic, if you forgive me and are so inclined –


%d bloggers like this: