There are many discussions amongst world leaders, economists, business leaders, and educators about the pros and cons of competition. Some of the most spirited debates in which I’ve participated have centered around competition and students. Arguments usually include the following:
[cc licensed photo by mtsofan]
- Students will face competition at every level of their lives. They need to learn to compete early and often.
- K-12 students will graduate and compete for a prime spot in a college or university.
- University students will graduate and compete globally for their own spots in a global economy.
- We have to prepare them to compete. Period.
I’ve taught in both the secondary and elementary levels in public K-12 education. I’ve witnessed kids competing for spots on athletic teams, music performing groups, art awards, National Honor Society and other honoraries… for grades, for representing the class as valedictorian, for speaker at graduation… to be first in line for lunch, first in line for recess, for the fastest time at Field Day, for a solo at the 4th grade program…
… for the biggest helping of lunch (because it’s probably the only meal of the day)… for that coat in the lost and found (because there isn’t enough money at home to buy one)… for the attention of the teacher (because attention from an adult is rare and precious outside of school)…
It seems to me that kids live and breathe competition every day of their lives.
When do they learn to work toward the good of all?
Maybe I’m just getting old and sentimental, but watching the news out of Japan after the horror they’ve experienced in the last month has me really thinking… if we spend so much time on competition and racing to be the best, that leaves a LOT of people in our dust. What if people need our help? What about those people left behind? Should we sit and smugly congratulate ourselves on being the best and beating everyone else? How does that help us as a society in the long-term?
Don’t get me wrong… I’m not advocating that we give out “participation” trophies or ribbons for just showing up and not putting forth any effort. It just feels like we’ve cultivated a culture of competition at any cost, and that’s where I see so many problems.
In my music classroom, my students and I often discuss that our goals are very different than they are in other classrooms. No matter what we’re doing, whether it’s preparing for a concert/performance, or simply learning a song for the sake of the music, we’re learning together. “In math class, it’s all about YOU. In music class, it’s all about US.” They probably tire of hearing me say that, but it sticks with them. I heard one of my students explaining the concept to a new student one day.
When we learn something new- a new recorder song, for example- there are going to be some kids who learn more quickly than others. In our environment, those “advanced” kids now have a special responsibility: help those students who haven’t yet learned the song. We do a lot of peer group work, and I am either walking around as a guide or am working with those who need the most help. With shared responsibility in the class, we see improvement in all. More importantly, I see my students building skills in patience, empathy, and caring, as well as their own musical skills.
Now for a little disclosure: I’m a highly competitive person; but I think as I’ve grown up, it’s become more about competing with myself and less about competing with others.
At what point does competition, whether it’s in the market place or in the classroom, do more harm than good? When corporations throw ethics under the bus to eke out higher profits, everyone suffers except for the people at the top. When we push kids to compete against each other in everything they do, they learn that the SELF is more important than the collective GROUP.
And in the end, nobody wins… especially not kids.
I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this subject, so let’s have it. Debate me in the comments, please.