When Competition Fails Us

trophyThere 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.

14 thoughts on “When Competition Fails Us

  1. I kind of agree. I don’t like the winners and losers in competition, but you should strive to do your best at what you are doing. Kids should be expected (and put in experiences, with proper training/teaching) to do their best. I know you’re not OK with students who don’t try their best. In a way, they are competing with those around them. So I guess I’m not opposed to the competition so much as the clear designation between winners and losers. Maybe that’s a losers way to justify himself? 🙂

    • You’re not a loser, Josh. Keep repeating that over and over. 😉

      I want to address one of the things you said, “In a way, they are competing with those around them.” Exactly. Why are they competing with the other kids around them for everything? I keep hearing people say that, and I don’t think that has to be the case in every situation. If I look across the room and view everyone in the room as my competitors, I start looking out only for myself. I think there’s something inherently wrong with that.

      Maybe that’s not what you meant. ??

      • Yes and no. It’s funny this conversation came up on ESPN today of all places. There’s a fine line between giving everyone a participation ribbon and holding “1st place” on a pedestal. I want the middle ground. I want the internal motivation to get better. If I’m at a conference and I see something that you’re doing that’s cool, I want to do it, make it my own so it’s what works best in my district. I guess “competing with others” isn’t exactly correct…I think both of my ramblings prove the point that there’s a lot of grey between doing your best and competing against your neighbor. Life shouldn’t be a handful of rainbow colored participation ribbons, but you can’t keep bursting bubbles by making it a caged match.

  2. Well said Michelle! At our school, we have changed our Awards ceremony that used to recognize only a select few students to one that recognizes EACH student for a strength they have. We do not take away from those kids that excel in academics but we add recognition to those that excel in other areas. The key thing here is that we, as educators, need to focus on intrinsic motivation. By providing extrinsic rewards, competition and awards, we actually take away from the intrinsic (Deci and Ryan). As you stated, we also take away from the collaborative environment. When the goal is to defeat others, this makes it difficult to work together.

    I am like you, I enjoy choosing to participate in competition but the key here is that I CHOOSE. With things like awards, competition is actually forced upon our kids – this may seem great for those few who win but it actually takes away from intrinsic and hurts the many “losers” as well.

    Here are a few posts on the topic from my blog:

    Death of an Awards Ceremony http://bit.ly/fxAPK7

    Is Learning A Sport? Board http://bit.ly/ej5e9n

    My hat goes off to you for continuing this important conversation!

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris! I’m glad you linked to those two blog posts, because the discussion you’ve been having about awards is part of what inspired me to write this post.

      I think many have forgotten how important it is to take care of each other… when we lose sight of helping the person next to us, we all fail in the long-term. Nobody wins.

  3. I really love your comments here. I’ve long been an advocate for removing the phrase “competitive workplace” from school missions statements and replacing it with the word “collaborative workplace”.

    There is a difference between demanding the best from our students and building a culture of competition, unfortunately education all too often blurs the two. What most adults fail to recognized is that when a student loses that’s OUR problem, not a student problem. We should not be building a system where only half of its participants win.

  4. While I think a little competition can be healthy, our culture has certainly pushed it past the brink. A little competition pushes us to achieve our best; a lot of competition pushes us to be self-centered and selfish. How can we expect our children to work for the greater good of their society (one that they will inherit in a few short years) if we are constantly telling them to be better, faster, smarter than those around them? The truth is, we can’t. As a society, we say we want one thing, but our actions speak much more loudly than our words ever do. We SAY we want our kids to be compassionate and understanding and helpful and kind, but we SHOW our kids that the trophies and ribbons and awards are all that really matters.

    I try to break that mentality in my classroom. Teaching in an affluent private school, my kids are even more driven to be the best. But in my classroom, we push to se everyone succeed. No matter what the skill level, each individual has something to contribute to the classroom community. I hope that my kids see that and appreciate it. Of course outside of my doors is a different story. But at least they have one or two safe spaces where they can just be without having to be the best.

    • MaryBeth, your classroom sounds like a great place to be!

      I like your quote, “each individual has something to contribute to the classroom community.” I think we could remove the word “classroom” to see that as a bigger picture for our society. Everyone has something to contribute. I would love to be able to help each individual learn to find his/her strengths and grow. As a teacher, I can’t imagine a greater accomplishment for a child. 🙂

      Thanks for responding!

  5. This is a great post with some great conversation happening as a result. Thank you all for that. This makes me think of district and state music competitions in high school. Which I elected to be a part of on an individual level. Just an FYI, I play tuba and always performed solos as well as in brass quintets at these events. There’s your little known fact about me! 🙂 I chose to be in band and choir, so the large group competitions were required, however I did enjoy them and very much got into the competition aspect when that time of year came. I was very competitive in this realm because any kind of competition that was athletic or academic intimidated me very much. I’m with Chris in that, if students choose to compete, fine. But just for everyone to be told, “Today we’re all going to see who can run the mile the fastest!” (bad middle school P.E. memories there), we’re setting up kids to hurt. Why would anyone be OK with knowingly doing this?

    Thinking about what MaryBeth said about community, even though I chose to compete on an individual and small group level in music, I had to always come “home” to contribute to the success of the whole group. Even if it was just a concert for parents. Not necessarily an official competition. I feel this was my way of giving back to the community that was our band or choir “family”. Maybe we should be asking our students more often to give back after they’ve fine tuned those skills? If you’re going to choose to take this path in school that’s great, but what are you going to do with this skill once you’ve fine tuned it? If we start this mentality early on, perhaps that will then go from “classroom community” to just “community” like Michelle said.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks Michelle and everyone else.

  6. My take is slightly different. My son suffers from the Autism Spectrum disorder. He does not enter into a competition for the purpose of trying to win so he can boast to all, he wants to be like any other child and enjoy the fun of participating. Children like Josh just want to fit in. Sometimes this is hard because people don’t want to let him do so. All he wants to do is participate. If you want to have an event geared toward kids who strive for more than just having fun, then set up an event for those children. Otherwise, let the child in each one of them enjoy what they can before they have to face the reality of life. If they get a small token like a trophy or tee shirt, remember that is something that they will cherish long after their fellow teammates move on to the big leagues.

  7. Michelle,
    Awesome post! I love it! Competition is such an interesting subject and you really hit the head on so much of what competition is. I too like Mr. Wejr have been the principal that handed out awards based on grades and behavior. I vividly remember the teachers and I worrying about not hurting some kids feelings because they weren’t the best in something and were not going to receive an award. Your post made me think though about what is the right way to handle things. I think healthy competition is a good thing, but perhaps our society has taken it too far?

  8. I agree with the idea of eliminating competition from EVERYday life in the classroom, but the practicality just isn’t there. I do my best as a math teacher to encourage students to try to do better than they have and not to compare their achievements to that of their peers but the students choose to share their grades on homework and tests with each other. If there is a way to stop that, I would love to here any ideas.

    • Johna, I found the way around that was to have the kids do more partner and small-group learning. Instead of me “delivering” the information to them, I asked them to find solutions together. When they worked together, the competition as individuals changed. Don’t get me wrong… this didn’t happen right away. It took me a while to help them see that learning isn’t about who is the best. They also learned (after some time) that they learned BETTER when they helped each other.

      Thanks for your comment!

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