An educational reformer whom I admire very much was kind enough to watch my TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach,” and provide feedback. While he enjoyed the talk, he had one quibble with it. I had suggested that instead of debate teams in schools (in which students are arbitrarily assigned one side or another of a fabricated either/or scenario and told to research, argue and win), we have solutionary teams, in which students still compete (because, as I said in the talk, we love to do that), to produce the most innovative, practical and cost effective ideas for solving entrenched challenges. This reformer felt strongly that competition, even for solving problems, would set kids against one another so that “one has to fail in order that another can succeed,” a major social problem as he sees it.
Prior to giving my TEDx talk, I thought a lot about whether to suggest solutionary teams or just focus on solutionary clubs, courses and approaches in school. A very competitive person myself, I rejected competition for a long time. I found it personally damaging as a child, getting physically ill before both tests and gymnastics meets. I very purposefully sent my son to an elementary school that did not have grades, in large part because I didn’t like the idea of learning being conflated with winning and losing (which grading essentially promotes).
Yet I remember when my son yearned for competitive sports and learned from both the losing and the winning. Both experiences were important for him. Winning gracefully and practicing good sportsmanship helped him become a better person, just as losing gracefully and striving against tough odds helped him persevere and try harder. I also remember when he asked his 8th grade teacher to give him grades on his work so that he could understand, beyond the narrative, where his work stood on some comparative scale.
We humans are competitive, that’s certain. We are also cooperative. Is there room for competition in education? My vision of solutionary teams is primarily cooperative. Students will work together to come up with solutions to problems. Yes, they will then compete with other teams, and yes, one team will win and the other lose (or they will sometimes tie), but will this be damaging? Or will it perhaps inspire greater cooperation, critical and creative thinking, and commitment the next time? Will it prepare these students for a world in which competition – like it or not – exists side by side with cooperation, the great ideas and innovations becoming the de facto “winners” in both the world of ideas and of the marketplace? It may. Would it be enough to promote solutionary clubs and courses in school, or would these not generate the kind of enthusiasm reserved for competitive sports, marginalizing what I think should be a centerpiece in school: creative work for a better world?
I’ve come to believe that losing need not be damaging, and competition, though adversarial, need not be hostile. But, I am cognizant of the dangers of introducing a new form of competition into a system already permeated with what I consider to be an overly and damagingly competitive structure. I welcome your thoughts on this. What can we gain through carefully constructed solutionary teams within our schools? What do we risk? What are the best solutions to responding to our competitive-loving natures? Should we advocate for solutionary clubs alone, or both solutionary clubs and solutionary teams, the choice being up to the students themselves?
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
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