How much competition is too much?
I asked myself that question some
years ago when I was appointed director of curriculum
and instruction for a Midwestern city school district.
Making the rounds of the district’s 12 schools I found
In a 10th-grade English class, I
found kids writing essays on citizenship for a local bar
association’s contest. Moving on to a middle school, I
saw seventh-grade science students drawing posters for a
county humane society contest in hopes of winning
stuffed animals. That afternoon, I watched third-graders
hop around a gym as part of a national charity’s pledge
drive. The kids who hopped the longest won crayons and
When I counted up the number of
competitive activities in classrooms -- more than 200 in
one school year -- I knew it was time to put on the
brakes. It wasn’t easy, but with the school board’s
support and principals’ cooperation, we reclaimed the
instructional program. Competitive activities were still
allowed, but they were held after school for students
who wanted to sign up.
Outside the winner’s
In today’s accountability-driven
world, many teachers believe competition is the best way
to push kids to make their best efforts. And often
principals and other supervisors agree.
Recently I saw a first-grade
teacher hold up a construction paper cutout of the
letter M. “Look, boys and girls,” the teacher gushed.
“Madison cut straight on the lines and then she glued on
glitter to make her letter shiny. Madison wins a place
on our star board.” The principal smiled and saw nothing
Madison might be in the winner’s
circle, but, as Alfie Kohn and other critics of
classroom competition point out, one student’s win makes
the rest of the kids losers. In No Contest: The Case
Against Competition, Kohn argues that teachers
construct competitive activities because of mistaken
assumptions. Competition, says Kohn,
• Does not
motivate students to do their best;
• Does not build
students’ character or self-esteem; and
• Does not help
students build good social skills.
Author and speaker Marvin Marshall
agrees that competition “dulls the spirits” of kids who
find themselves outside the winner’s circle. In
Discipline Without Stress, Punishments, or
Rewards, he describes a kindergarten teacher who
believed she was motivating her students by saying,
“Boys and girls, let’s see who can make the best
drawing.” Unwittingly, the teacher had set up only one
student to be the winner.
But even when teachers are
confronted with the negative effects of competition,
they’re reluctant to relinquish classroom rivalry. A
case study by special education expert Rick Lavoie shows
that old habits die hard, if at all.
Lavoie describes a teacher who had
difficulty with classroom management. Her principal
noted that she was “over-emphasizing competition” and
encouraged her to use more cooperative activities. The
teacher agreed, but she quickly turned cooperation into
competition by creating a bulletin board labeled “Who
Can Be the Most Cooperative This Week?”
Competition in the
Competition can be useful and fun
when it’s fair and is used to improve students’
performance in extracurricular activities, says
Marshall, who promotes a motivational approach to
learning. But classroom competition is
counterproductive, he says -- especially when students
are at the beginning stages of acquiring new knowledge
Many teachers openly rank students
according to test scores, grades, or some other
competitive criteria. For students who strive to be at
the top -- and who care about their class rank --
ratings might be an incentive, Marshall says, but
rankings and ratings often depress kids who have no
chance of making it.
Competition seldom leads to
meaningful learning, he says, and it doesn’t turn kids
into lifelong learners, a major goal found in many
school mission statements. In competitive classrooms,
teachers and students focus on an extrinsic interest in
winning rather than on an intrinsic interest in
learning. Marshall says that focus can lead to other
problems, such as widespread cheating.
For the so-called top kids, staying
in the winner’s circle often presents an overwhelming
challenge. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, psychology
professors at the University of Rochester, say many
students who are singled out in this way shrink from the
spotlight. Getting lower grades and less teacher
attention reduces the pressure of continually having to
fight for -- and risk losing -- first place, they
For kids who struggle to learn,
competition can feel like constant punishment,
perpetuating the notion that school is unfair and
unjust. An eighth-grader who fared poorly in an intense
classroom math contest told me, “My teacher only wants
to teach the top kids. He doesn’t want to bother with a
kid like me who gets low grades.”
It’s easy to tell whether schools
value competition or cooperation -- you only have to
look and listen briefly to catch the drift in
classrooms. The hidden curriculum -- the value system
that lies just beneath the surface of school life, as
University of Minnesota researchers David Johnson and
Roger Johnson describe it -- almost leaps out when you
pay close attention. (See sidebar.)
Johnson and Johnson are quick to
point out that, contrary to many teachers’ assumptions,
cooperative learning requires more than simply putting
students into groups. It’s not enough to seat students
side-by-side to work on assignments, to pair successful
students with those who need help, or to assign group
reports without giving students specific roles and
responsibilities to contribute to the group’s
Creating cooperative classrooms
takes time and effort -- and plenty of teacher training.
First, teachers must learn these five basic elements,
which they, in turn, need to teach their
1. Positive interdependence.
Students are linked with others so that each one’s
success depends on teamwork. Students work together in
small groups, share resources, provide mutual support,
and celebrate their team’s achievement.
accountability. Each student is held accountable
through assessments that are shared with the student and
the group. The group provides the student with
assistance, support, and encouragement according to
needs identified on the assessment.
3. Face-to-face interaction.
Students help, support, encourage, and praise others in
their small groups as they learn and work together.
Students form strong personal relationships with their
4. Social skills. Students
apply skills such as leadership, decision making, trust
building, communication, and conflict management to
their group studies.
5. Group processing.
Students discuss their common learning goals; the
procedures they follow to achieve the goals; and their
progress, problems, and success as individuals and as a
More than 375 studies confirm that
working together to achieve common goals produces higher
achievement and greater productivity than working alone,
Johnson and Johnson report. Their research shows that
students in cooperative classrooms, compared with those
in competitive classrooms, have higher-level reasoning,
more fluent and better ideas for solving problems, and
greater transfer of learning from one situation to
Time to think
Teachers who are bent on
competition often ignore an essential factor in
students’ learning: 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. To get all students involved
in valuable learning, Marshall suggests using small,
cooperative groups in which students are given time to
discuss how they can help one another learn and
The key, he says, is to plan ways
to involve every student in learning, beginning with the
first minute of every class. Instead of asking simple
questions with just one right answer, which usually
results in the same few students raising their hands,
Marshall urges teachers to pose thoughtful questions
that require students to think deeply and share
important ideas with partners or in small groups. He
also encourages teachers to raise high-level and
high-interest questions that pique students’ desire to
learn. (See “Ask Me a Question,” May 2001.)
Marshall’s prescription brings to
mind a scene I witnessed not long ago in a high school
English class. The 11th-graders had just finished
reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a 1906
exposé of Chicago’s meat-packing plants. The teacher
posed a series of deep questions as a homework
assignment: If you were Upton Sinclair, what story would
you write today? What point of view would you use to
tell your story? What types of characters would you
include? What commentary on our society would you want
When the kids arrived for their
first-period class, they clamored to begin the
discussion. One boy had already written a first chapter,
even though that was not an assignment. Another boy, who
was often sullen and withdrawn, talked at length about
immigration-related injustices and how he would tell his
story from the viewpoint of migrant workers. Before I
knew it, the 50-minute class period had flown by.
Looking at my notes, I saw that every kid in this class
had participated and learned.
They were all winners.
Yes, competition can serve as an
incentive to improve performance, but it can have a
negative effect on learning, especially when students
are learning new ideas and skills. There’s a place for
competition, but, as I learned years ago, it should be
reserved for those students who choose to compete
outside the classroom.
Susan Black, an ASBJ
contributing editor, is an education research consultant
in Hammondsport, N.Y.
Deci, Edward, and Richard Ryan. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations:
Classic Definitions and New Directions.”
Contemporary Educational Psychology, January
Deci, Edward, and Richard Ryan.
“The Paradox of Achievement: The Harder You Push, The
Worse It Gets.” In J. Aronson, ed. Improving Academic
Achievement: Contributions of Social Psychology. New
York: Academic Press, 2002.
Johnson, David, and Roger Johnson.
“Cooperative Learning, Values, and
Culturally Plural Classrooms”.
Kohn, Alfie. No Contest: The
Case Against Competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
Marshall, Marvin. Discipline
without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards. Los
Alamitos, Calif.: Piper Press, 2001.