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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Reflections on Competition in School

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

Image courtesy of artfulblogger via Creative Commons.

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


15 thoughts on “Reflections on Competition in School

  1. Competition is king, like it or not. It’s the real world, like it or not. Any opportunity to compete with one another, to learn to win and lose with grace is a great thing.

    Posted by Mr. Mayoh | February 25, 2011, 5:54 am
    • Mr. Mayoh – thank you for joining the conversation and for your comment!

      I have to disagree about competition’s importance, however. We don’t practice competition like the natural world does – we practice it politically and economically by choice to make few people richer and keep most people poorer. We do the same thing at school. I don’t think this is moral or ethical. I think that we have a responsibility to educate children in such a way that they see they can accomplish more together than they can individually against one another. We create winners and losers, but we should be working on social institutions that aren’t part of any zero-sum game.

      I don’t like competition as pedagogy, I don’t think it’s king – it’s what we’ve chosen, but we are not people powerless to change – and it’s only the real world insomuch as competition has created egregious social problems that we need to solve using other means.

      Best wishes,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 25, 2011, 7:07 am
  2. I totally take your point and wholeheartedly agree that collaboration is the way forward – only yesterday I was talking to some teachers about how working together and sharing ideas underpins every one of my lessons – but I fear that this is an issue that is far bigger than either of us.

    Yes, it’d be lovely to ignore the real world and teach that purely getting on gets you ahead, but the nature of reality is that competition does exist, like it or not. We have a duty to educate our students about the real world. Failure to introduce competition in some form is failure to prepare learners for what society is actually like.

    Now, I’m not up for publicly hanging and flogging somebody for getting something wrong, nor am I in favour of putting people on pedestals for coming first in something and ‘beating’ the rest, but I am in favour of encouraging students to motivate themselves to improve. Competing with others, when managed well, can lead students to learn to compete with themselves and self-improve…


    Posted by Mr. Mayoh | February 25, 2011, 7:36 am
    • I am a big fan of feedback and learning to set and reach one’s own goals – I think we stand on common ground there. If we get really good at helping kids do those things, then perhaps more and more will achieve what they want to do for themselves, their families, and their communities, which might one day obviate the need for losers at all –


      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 25, 2011, 9:34 am
  3. I think the factor that determines whether a competitive environment is positive or negative is choice. In the real world, adults get to choose which competitions, both work and leisure, they will enter. The same is true for competitive sports in school; students choose what sports they will participate in. In the classroom, most competitions are mandatory, and I believe that is counterproductive and negative for many students. I do not believe it teaches them anything about the real world. Competition is motivating only to those who think they have a chance to win. Every student, no matter the effort expended, does not have a chance to win those classroom competitions.

    Posted by Sue Downing | February 25, 2011, 8:51 am
  4. There is nothing wrong with competitions in school as long as the student is the one making the choice to compete or not. Mandating competition is abusive in that if forces some students to accept the role of loser, a role that they may not want to accept, could have difficulty dealing with and one that has the chance of being the only role that many students have in most mandated competitions.

    I remember being compelled to enter an art competition in middle school and resisting as hard as I could. I am the son of an artist mother and a writer father and my abilities, such as they are, apparently are all from my father’s genes. I knew I had little or no artistic talent and would not have entered any art competition of my own volition. The nasty comments about my pathetic creation were the major trauma of an otherwise wonderful middle school experience and 40 years later I still do everything I can do avoid having to produce anything involving art or crafts.

    Your son chose to compete in sports, he requested grades, both of which are usually mandated. Because he was able to pick the arenas in which to compete he was able to extract positive learning from success and failure. Others, mandated to compete, also learn from losing but it is a lesson that too often fosters repeated frustrations, negative self-images, and such an intense expectation of failure that many students refuse to participate in any mandated activity, including lessons.

    Posted by Deven Black @devenkblack | February 25, 2011, 10:25 am
  5. Thanks to you all for these thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. In my mind, participation in Solutionary Teams and Clubs would both be choices. I feel better about advocating these in this way.

    Posted by Zoe Weil | February 25, 2011, 12:21 pm
  6. I think I agree with Deven on this one. The key thing is that our schools need competitive spaces (because our goal is to teach for the world kids will enter) and non-competitive spaces (because we have a goal to teach about collaboration and working with the “other side”).

    Posted by dwees | February 25, 2011, 12:23 pm
  7. I do see the worth or learning to win and lose gracefully. I do hope schools become more about our collective competition against the problems we have created for one another and our world, and less about jockeying for position amongst ourselves – perhaps voluntary competition aside.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 25, 2011, 7:42 pm
  8. Hi Zoe, I wonder if your son’s interest in “competing” isn’t primarily fueled by the society in which we live? Despite your efforts to educate him in a different mind set he is still influenced by the media and how his peers think. It’s hard to shelter kids from the world. As a mother you know that very well, I’m sure. I don’t think it’s a question of competing or not competing. I think it has more to do with how we as adults live our lives and model our beliefs to the young people in our care. If we ourselves are ambivalent they will pick up on that. I think competing against ourselves, as hoaky as it may sound, is what we should be striving for. This is what I would consider a “healthy” form of competition.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | February 26, 2011, 12:00 pm
  9. Could you combine competition and collaboration? What if the solutionary team from each school was sent the problem to solve in advance. Then when they arrive at the event, they each present their solutions, gaining point for things like budget consideration, ecological impact, problematizing, innovation, etc. Then the two teams get to question eachother. They interact to determine which solution is best or if it was even possible to combine elements of their solutions to create a new idea. They then work together to think critically about all of the elements. Perhaps one team would concede (gaining points for thinking of the greater good above personal gain).

    Ooh, ooh! Just had another thought. Say you were trying to solve a problem like AIDS in an African country. One team could be a medical missions team from the US who is traveling to the country to help make lives better through science, education, and technology. The other team could be a local advocacy group who knows their people’s history and traditions, as well as their struggles and needs. Each team would offer a solution based on their unique perspective and in the end, they may design a culturally sensitive, education based, scientifically progressive, and sustainable solution that would use the best information from each group.

    I’d love to participate in something like that!

    Posted by dancecookie | February 26, 2011, 2:32 pm
  10. Great blog post and topic of conversation.

    Bruce Lipton is a leading researcher on “new biology” and author of Biology of Belief and and Spontaneous Evolution says that our preoccupation with competition stems from the world’s “myth-perception” of how evolution occurs based on Darwinian theory where nature eliminates the weak in a battle for survival. Consequently, life is a basically competition with winners and losers.

    Here is an excerpt from one of his interviews from Planeta Magazine explaining his view on cooperation vs. competition.

    Darwinian theory further emphasizes that life is based upon a “survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence,” implying that it is a “dog-eat-dog” world where we must struggle to stay alive. This idea of “struggle” was originally based upon Thomas Malthus’ theory that predicted: “Animals reproduce so quickly that there will come a time when there will be too many animals and not enough food.” So life will inevitably result in a struggle and only the “fittest” will survive the competition. This idea has carried over into human culture so that we see our daily lives as one long competition driven by the fear of losing the struggle. Unfortunately, Malthus’ idea was found to be scientifically incorrect, consequently the competitive character of Darwinian theory is basically flawed.

    New insights offered in biology are now revealing that the biosphere (all the animals and plants together) is a giant integrated community that is truly based upon a cooperation of the species. Nature does not really care about the individuals in a species; Nature cares about what the species as a “whole” is doing to the environment. Simply, Nature does not care that we have had an Einstein, a Mozart or a Michelangelo (examples of humanity’s “fittest”), Nature is more concerned about how human civilization is cutting down the rain forests and changing the climate.

    The “new biology” emphasizes that evolution is 1) not an accident and 2) is based upon cooperation, these insights are profoundly different than those offered by conventional Darwinian theory. A newer theory of evolution would emphasize the nature of harmony and community as a driving force behind evolution, ideas that are completely different than today’s notion of life/death competition.

    Most of us are of the belief that we need to have competition in education because that is the reality of the world that we live in and we have to prepare our students to survive in that “dog-eat-dog” world. However, it is evident that this notion of “survival of the fittest” is not doing our world any good and there needs to be a change of mind. I think this change of mind needs to start in our education system. It’s not about preparing our students to compete in the “dog eat dog” world. We need to focus on cooperation in education (like your solutionary team concept) to prepare our students to change the “dog eat dog” misperception that the world currently holds.

    Great post!

    Thomas Ro

    Posted by Mr.Ro | February 27, 2011, 11:42 am
  11. I wonder why we have an obsession with the idea that we must teach to the world that kids enter? Why not teach to a better world? I am a competitive person myself, especially in terms of athletics, I enjoy the competition that pushes me to achieve my best. However, I pick my sports myself, just as I want to pick my studies myself.

    How I compete and on what terms I compete, should be choosen by me and not dictated. However, I have gotten further away from the idea as its importance in a pedagogical sense. Or, I supposed, more to do with the idea of why, when the world is a mixed-system economy, we must only focus on the capitalistic aspect of it? Sure, I have to compete for a job in the real world, but there are plenty of jobs, that are service positions that require giving of self, not competing against someone else.

    I truly believe it makes little difference to “help prepare students for the ‘real world’ ” Instead, lets just help the student learn critically and develop naturally. All of that ‘real world’ stuff will fall into place, I believe, and the only thing you can do by preparing them through competition, is stunt their own self value and self worth, in the process.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | March 4, 2011, 1:42 am


  1. Pingback: A Change of Mind: From Competition to Cooperation | What's On The Go With Mr. Ro? - February 27, 2011

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