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And the Winner Is ... The Trouble with classroom competition is that it brands every kid a loser except one

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 competition everywhere.

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 coloring books.

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 circle

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.Learn More: Hidden Value Systems

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 wrong.

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 classroom

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 and skills.

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.In Depth: The Ultimate Spelling Test

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 explain.

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.”

Competition or cooperation?

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.)Research Archive

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 learning.

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 students:

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.

2. Individual 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 teammates.

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 team.

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 another.

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 achieve.

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 to make?

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.

Selected references

Deci, Edward, and Richard Ryan. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, January 2000; .

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, 1992.

Marshall, Marvin. Discipline without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards. Los Alamitos, Calif.: Piper Press, 2001.

Copyright © 2005, National School Boards Association. American School Board Journal is an editorially independent publication of the National School Boards Association. Opinions expressed by this magazine or any of its authors do not necessarily reflect positions of the National School Boards Association. Within the parameters of fair use, this article may be printed out and photocopied for individual or educational use, provided this copyright notice appears on each copy. This article may not be otherwise, linked, transmitted, or reproduced in print or electronic form without the consent of the Publisher. For more information, call (703) 838-6739.

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