Finding Balance in the Classroom Between Competition and Cooperation

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?

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