Competition and cooperation – how do we find a balance in the classroom? As an educator, I am reminded daily that people like to win. As parents we boast of our child’s accomplishments, comparing them to others. Students are encouraged to go out for sports because it builds character. Even the youngest students want to be “the best”, “the smartest”, “the prettiest”. It’s a natural thing, right? Or is it?
In Po Bronson’s book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, competition is viewed as positive, driving learning and performance. “In finite games, you compete and then you let it go, and you have rest and recuperation – that’s actually really important for kids,” said Bronson. “It’s the continuous sense of pressure that is unhealthy for them.” As an educator, it’s the pressure that worries me because I feel today’s classrooms have become way too competitive. Students actually feel shame when they don’t win.
Here in the south, football is king. Millions of dollars are spent maintaining and improving fields and athletic facilities. Coaches typically make more than the average teacher, and they earn it by giving up their evenings and weekends to practices and games. If the coach does not produce a winning team, he or she is fired regardless of their prowess as an educator.
But competition exists in academics as well as sports. The NCLB test mentality has seen to that. Schools compete for the honor to call themselves “exemplary”. Charter schools weed out the special-need students in order to skew their results. Teachers are judged on how many students pass standardized tests. And while you won’t see cheerleaders at academic bowls or ice-cold Gatorade poured on the faculty sponsor leading the Chess Club to victory, there is still a winner and a loser. Someone walks out with a trophy and bragging rights while others are encouraged to congratulate the victor on a job well done.
Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, argues “studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done. Worse — you’re a good person in proportion to the number of people you’ve beaten.” And y’know, I have to agree. While it’s important to remember that you are not defined by the win and that the only expectation is to try your best, society tells us otherwise. Self-esteem discussions take this further by saying “everyone’s a winner” and “we’re all special”. Even a child will be able to tell you there is no way we can all be special, so why do we continue with this illusion?
Tom Shadyac’s movie I Am explains that we are actually designed to be cooperative rather than competitive. It’s a natural occurrence yet societal norms perpetuate the idea that winning is the ultimate goal – the pinnacle of success. Our schools are a microcosm of society, so we continue to promote winning and being the best.
As a classroom teacher, I always promoted teamwork. We supported each other and worked together every chance we could, and honestly I didn’t think this was unique. Educators refer to this as “cooperative learning” and it’s been around forever. One day I picked up my class of 4th graders from P.E. The teacher was beaming, letting me know that my class was the only group to get the tennis ball over the roof. Seeing my puzzled expression, she continued to explain that each class had been given the task to bounce a tennis ball over the two-story building using teamwork and a parachute. She was thrilled to report that my students not only worked together, but were supportive in their conversation and sportsmanship. “They lifted each other up!” she exclaimed.
Again, why is this unique? I would hope this would be the norm, but I knew our class excelled because they knew how to work together. They also knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths and they were well-versed in encouraging others. I still smile thinking about that day.
So what do we want for our students? We want them to follow their passions. We want them to be resilient, well-adjusted adults. We want them to make educated choices in life. We want them to find a career that stimulates. We want them to get along well with others. How can we accomplish that by promoting competition at the expense of cooperation? Can we find balance?
Was reminded today of one week several years ago when it seemed all my students had discovered hidden talents.
One young lady had accomplished the near-impossible task of completing long-division with remainders without showing any work whatsoever! When I inquired about her work, she simply replied, “I did it in my head.” Pretty amazing considering math was usually her most challenging subject.
Another young lady read aloud her rather creative spelling story. When I asked her to share one of her more remarkable sentences with us, she gave me the deer-in-the-headlights pose. Upon further inspection, her spelling composition notebook was completly blank. Her reply? “I didn’t write down my story – it’s all in my head.” Sigh…
Tip to parents: please, please, please review your child’s homework each night to ensure that it’s not all still stuck in their heads. 🙂
So I spent last weekend with three male family members and it occurred to me that communication could have been better. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed many well-meaning parents answering for their children, ordering their meals, finishing their sentences. It’s so important that a child learns to speak for themselves. That means that when a waitress looks at me and asks what my child would like to drink I kindly tell her to ask him. And yes, I say the same thing to my husband when he wants to know what our child would like. How would I know? Ask him.
In educational settings it’s important to offer many opportunities for students to speak up for themselves. Teachers call it wait time and we are pretty patient, but often other students speak up. All young people must be instructed in giving “wait time” to others so they may collect their thoughts, processing information at their own rate, and decide what they want to say. Easy? Nah. Important? Absolutely.
Next time you find yourself in the presence of a young person, please slow down and allow that child the opportunity to speak for themselves. It may seem like eons to you, but remember that it’s time well spent.
My son is a 4th grader this year and is learning how to be a better writer. He’s enthralled by all the elaboration techniques available these days. Things sure have changed, y’know. We used to study/teach similes, metaphors, etc. out of an English textbook. His enlightened teacher doesn’t use a text, but chooses activities like showing movie clips and allowing him to respond in writing, giving the perfect authentic opportunity to practice these elaboration techniques. We are even throwing out “trash words” from our daily communication. He’s growing as a writer and a thinker. I like that!
My own students struggle with basic reading and writing skills. They are simply trying to formulate a basic sentence, so the idea of trying to get them to expand on their ideas is daunting at best. Cop out? Nah – I work with very special young people whose strengths are not always of the academic sort. We need to embrace the different learners out there who will undoubtedly add to our society in their own unique way. Yes, some are meant to be thinkers and some to be workers. Some to build, some to create, and some to write. There’s not a darn thing wrong with that.
So what are the elaboration techniques my son is being encouraged to use? Your basic literary elements are there: simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, but he is also encouraged to create “thought shots” which share his feelings and to hook them with a really good beginning sentence. Sometimes it’s contrived; other times it’s pretty good!
Will he be a famous writer? Probably not, but he sure has discovered a new appreciation for the written words. And for that I am truly grateful.
If you have small children, you are well aware of the craft opportunities available. One that drives me nuts is the ever-popular “let’s make a bird feeder” option. Oftentimes, this simply requires spreading peanut butter on a pinecone and rolling it in bird seed. Then you have to figure out how to get this messy project home, and when you do the backyard squirrel snatches it out of the tree in record time never to be seen again. I have a better idea:
Make your backyard an ongoing bird-feeding experience. Buy or make a simple birdfeeder and keep it filled with seed. Here in the the south we buy the regular year-round seed, but on the East Coast our birds preferred black oil sunflower seeds.
When my son was a pre-schooler we lived in a split-level house. My husband and I had created a bird-friendly back yard, so one spring a mother robin built her nest in the cross beams of the deck. We could go out on the deck and look down between the cracks and see inside the nest! In the basement, we could look out the slider and see her swooping in and out feeding her babies. Talk about an experience! Our son learned how to gently walk across the deck so he could see the eggs, and ultimately the baby birds. He also learned that we needed to give the momma bird privacy so she could tend to them. Imagine his surprise when they hatched and he was able to see how different they looked! We even had the opportunity to discuss why one had not hatched.
Now that we live in the south we have a different array of birds, but our backyard still offers opportunities for our son to observe their natural habits year round. This has provided a great frame of reference for scientific research. Children are naturally curious and what better way to encourage this curiosity than through natural experiences!
So keep those bird feeders filled and the binoculars handy!