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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Collaborate, but collaborate better than thy neighbor(?).

Originally posted at

We’ve had several meetings this year that have all had a similar message: “create a competitive environment in your classroom to motive your students”. We are told that they respond well to competition. They should always strive to do better than their neighbor. We are also expected to tell them that they are working toward a reward, even though we can’t decide what the reward will be, or even if it will exist at all. And, at the same meetings we are told to put students in groups to “work together”.

I understand what “we’re” shooting for at my school. We’re in trouble with the state—deep. Our goal, rather, our prescribed goal is to do anything we can to get the state of our asses. Administration is fumbling for any answer—little bits of 3rd hand research they’ve picked up at workshops and mashed together with whatever dung the consultants have passed down. Encouraging heavy competition between individuals and then asking for group collaboration is a bit contradictory. I understand this is an oversight. They’re worried. We fear for our jobs.

The collaboration side of this equation gets swept to the side fairly quickly unfortunately. It’s the unfed dog in the fight. Collaboration does not come naturally among my colleagues. We’ve been compared and divided by test scores, academic subject areas, grade levels, and meetings involve listening to one person ramble on about how we need to work together, but we never get the chance. So teaching collaboration is quite foreign for many—impossible for others. And, it cannot be ignored that the real goal for the higher-ups is to get the scores up to keep jobs and what-not, and I’m sure somewhere the really-higher-ups just want to keep everyone divided and on the never ending challenge of always outdoing thy neighbor (I’m sure this statement is just a mad raving of a cynical fool).

So what are we to do? What am I to do if I find encouraging brutal competition among my students unethical, cruel, counterproductive, and unfortunate? I’ve been reprimanded for not putting the sticker charts on the wall for my students to chart their progress against their neighbor. My learners happen to be working with each other—motivated as a group for the sake of the group and the learning.

Certainly, humanity first.


8 thoughts on “Collaborate, but collaborate better than thy neighbor(?).

  1. “Cooperate with others, compete with yourself.” “Everyone does not learn in the same way on the same day.” Two of my classroom mottos that supported the idea that together, we can accomplish more.Learning is not an isolated experience. The expectation is that each student would eitherbe learning or teaching another student something. “It’s okay to ask for help, and help when asked.”Another motto that was practiced in my classroom. The outcome? TONS OF COLLABORATION, COOPERATION, HELP, SUCCESS, JOY IN LEARNING, CONFIDENCE, GROWTH, GREAT PRESENTATIONS, SHARED HUMANITY, CITIZENSHIP, HONESTY, CREATIVITY, RISK-TAKING, PROBLEM-SOLVING…! We better be careful what we ask for in education.Teach your children well.We help grow good citizens who will lead families, communities, cities, countries… not test-takers & ruthless power mongers w/o consciences and thought.We are uniquely in the business of humanity. No other job asks someone to monitor and nurture the children of our country in totality as we do in teaching.We are the gateway for all US children to learn how to be a compassionate, thoughtful, knowledgeable and contributing members of society.And look at the lack of respect we are given…especially by those who hunger for the magic bullet and power who tell us to do the impractical, impossible, irrational dutiesof training children to be only concerned with competing against each other for rewards. Preposterous!

    Sandy Date: Fri, 5 Oct 2012 12:55:09 +0000 To:

    Posted by Sandy Hume | October 5, 2012, 9:16 am
    • Thank you for your comment. I could not agree more. Our system uses to implement controls over teachers and students. It is horrifying and brilliant how the system works to function separate from the consciousness of the parts within. So many teachers, admins, and students work as a part of the machine without the awareness that they are attached to a series of cogs or strings, to mix the metaphor. Until we all wake up (I’m glad to know folks like you who are awake) our people will continue along a path far worse than doom, mindless and unquestioning existence.

      Best, ETD

      Posted by educatedtodeath | October 5, 2012, 10:58 am
  2. Yikes, you describe my worst fear and greatest Orwellian nightmare. My first instinct, GET THE HELL OUT! We cannot implicitly condone this kind of terror by being complicit in its workings. It’s top-down B.S. like this coming from politicians and bureaucrats, and puppet-like administrators, that led me to flee mainstream education and seek to create an environment that has re-energized me to do good work.

    Yet, if you have the fortitude to stick it out, of course, working within this kind of environment and agitating, questioning, and to the extent possible, defying mandates to wound children is critical and honorable work. The two voices I’d draw from to bolster my resistance against such a drive for competition are, Alfie Kohn, for his logic and research in showing how counterproductive competition, rewards and punishments are to learning, and the Co-op’s own Kirsten Olson, for her many stories of the life-long emotional and psychological toll such wounding practices take on children, whether they learn successful survival strategies or not.

    Bring these sources and your own strong feelings and stories to whatever audience you can within the school – colleagues, parents, sympathetic administrators (if you can find any) and begin to build a counter-hegemonic subculture. Warning: this will not be a joyous path, but it is a righteous one. Keep putting the kids first.

    Good luck!!

    Posted by Paul Freedman | October 5, 2012, 9:33 am
  3. Throw a single bone between two starving dogs and watch what happens… Now, try it with kids…

    How far distant from real-life are the purported experts?

    Best wishes to you (and for your sanity in an insane environment),

    Posted by Brent Snavely | October 5, 2012, 9:55 am
    • I regret that this is our culture. Friendly competition seems to exist less and less. Collaboration has almost no meaning in many circles. It’s frightening that our systems promote such violence (although non-physical) within their walls.

      Posted by educatedtodeath | October 5, 2012, 11:02 am
  4. We play games as a part of our math program. Yes, there is friendly competition, bu the competition can be redirected to collaboration.

    Part of the instruction is this: “As you are playing, I’d like you to think about the strategies you use.” At the end, you and your partner will share strategies and write them down.” Often strategies are shared orally or on a google form. The focus is on strategies rather than winning or losing.

    Being reprimanded for not having a sticker chart? Are there openings at other buildings in your district?

    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | October 25, 2012, 3:00 am
    • Friendly competition (any sort of competition) is indeed a wonderful motivator for all of us. It’s deeply ingrained in our consciousness'(?). It’s at the heart of our economic system and drives groups (businesses, etc.) to eliminate the other by outperforming, outshining, or out-marketing the competition. It’s effective, but it is divisive. I use it, and I am competitive. But, in an environment that is demanding collaboration—or else, it is beyond counterintuitive to implement a system that is centered around outperforming the others. It’s an inconsistency I have seen in many schools and heard about from friends who work in the corporate world. (Note: I think I just rephrased my entire post. Sorry for being redundant and preachy.)

      I do not mean to say competition is a bad thing entirely, just that it is often used (though unintentionally, I think) to turn people against one another for the sake of achievement, scores, or profit. The worst bit is that lip service is being given to collaboration while we are being forced to promote a contradictory idea.

      With regard to a position in another school: I teach in a high poverty and racially segregated district. I teach in the black/poor school. We are funded differently. We are under more surveillance from outside agencies. 3rd parties are looking over our shoulders as we teach and as we meet. But the kids here deserve a critical teacher who is willing to advocate for them and work around the bureaucracy so they can experience something outside of the testing factory.

      My lot, for now, is to be a wrench in the cogs of a crushing machine.

      Thanks for your comment and support.

      Posted by educatedtodeath | October 25, 2012, 12:18 pm

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