Monday, September 22, 2014

I'm a Competitive Guy, But Not in the Classroom

Sport has been a life long passion for me.

At the age of three my parents enrolled me in gymnastics. There is even tape out there to prove it (working hard to destroy all evidence). My parents claimed it would make me more flexible, more athletic. It was the head start I needed to gain an edge on the competition. You see, I never really had a chance.

When I hit five, almost every weekend was filled with baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, or football. This really never stopped. I played sports through college. I play sports now. I love sports. I love competing.

Yet, I firmly believe competition in the classroom, and in the education system, is one of the most destructive forces in American schools. 


It would be easy to make a click baiting, top 10 list (trust me I have more than 10) or rant for thousands of words. Instead, I will offer one simple reason.

Competition seriously undermines the stated goal that all students should learn.

Our system of education pits students against one another even though learning is not a sport. When students are expected to compete academically, whether for awards, grades, rankings, or cute prizes, we are explicitly telling students that some kids SHOULD learn more than others. There is a perverse incentive to make sure the student next to you is NOT learning. Learning, in effect, becomes a zero sum game. It is not the learning that matters, but rather the winning. Competition tells students, in a very clear way, that getting ahead is more important than learning. Thus, keeping someone down is just as effective as rising to the top.

There is less creativity, less risk-taking, less cooperation, less vulnerability, less authentic learning. Intrinsic motivation is impossible because students are not trying to truly learn, but instead out-perform, and beat another student, for an extrinsic motivator—winning. If students are only motivated by the extrinsic reward of winning, or gaining a sticker, there is a negative effect on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the type of motivation one needs to learn for the sake of learning. Intrinsic motivation is needed to develop resilience, grit, and authentic passion. Intrinsic motivation is imperative to developing people who are innovative, who will do more than what the boss tells them or sees them doing.

So how is sport different?

As I grow older, I question many things about competitive sport, but I will save that for a different post. One major factor is choice. Usually, one chooses to play and compete in sports. There are different categories and divisions to ensure fair competition. There is no choice in school. There are very few opportunities to chose the subjects you take. You have very little time to study things you actually enjoy or are talented in. You are not asked to engage in competition, you are expected to do it by the very nature of our school system.

Another factor is fairness. We all go to school and are pretty much lumped into class by age, grade, and location. There are almost no other considerations to sorting. You have to compete against the people you are assigned to. No questions asked. It is akin to a 120 pound wrestler squaring off against a heavyweight— without choosing to do so. Any sports enthusiast would consider such a match-up ludicrous. No matter, we host similar mismatches in school every day. Situations like that are rarely positive, just like competition in school.

So how can we act differently?

I will throw out a few suggestions, but would rather hear from the crowd. Leave a note or write a response. How could things be different?

For one, de-emphasize grades. Either a student understands a concept or standard, or he/she needs improvement. What does knowing something 81.45% mean anyway?

For two, build formative assessment and check-ins into the learning process. We can talk to students, repair understanding, and learn together. We can build in mini victories rather than making learning all about the big game (a final test/exam).

For three, emphasize effort and perseverance. Scaffold meta-cognition and model learning to learn. We can show that those who ask for help are actually the strongest. This would build collaboration into the process. Without someone to beat, students could take the time to work together and see that learning is a lifelong process.

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