Create a no competition zone

Competition…

  • For the teacher’s attention
  • grades
  • prizes
  • approval
  • To be first in line
  • most popular
  • richest
  • prettiest
  • coolest

…undermines the positive learning climate we need in our classrooms. We now realize the damage competition does if left unchecked and recent anti-bullying and safe school climate efforts require that we actively work to make school an emotionally, socially, and physically safe place for every child.

This is especially important when we look at the unique nature of a school. Children go to school to learn things they don’t know or cannot yet do. Progressing from not knowing to knowing is an incremental process that requires risk taking and tenacity, and makes students vulnerable. The classroom is not like an athletic field, where the players already have the requisite knowledge and skills to compete. Students are still in the process of learning and classroom competition does not build character or a strong work ethic. What does build good character is challenge and encouragement,  realistic goals, and working hard to reach them – and all the while treating others with respect and compassion.

School, then, is inherently stressful.

Everything we do in our classroom, intentionally or without knowing, affects the stress level. Healthy classrooms thrive on cooperation, collaboration, and mutual support, which reduce this stress. In this climate, under the patient guidance of the teacher and community of respectful peers, students feel safe and can keep trying until they master the material or skill.

But the stress of the organized competition we sometimes use to motivate children and of the competition that happens when children vie for social status compound each other. Being compared to others and put on the spot to perform breed insecurity and can interfere with a student’s academic learning. We have learned that competition in the classroom leads to diminished, not increased, personal and group effort. Why? Because it substitutes extrinsic motivation for development of  self-discipline and an internal desire to try hard and to do well. Students work only as hard and as long as it takes to reach the artificial goal, or, when they see they cannot win, they give up or act out.  The competition establishes a pecking order, and students do not learn how to cooperate and help each other learn.  Instead they become competitors and the climate of the classroom becomes more stressful and less conducive to learning.

This competition is harmful to school climate and our students because it…

  • Puts children in a heightened emotional state of flight, fight or freeze.
  • Causes fear and embarrassment.
  • Labels students as good or bad at something.
  • Leads to winners and losers.
  • Defines an in and an out crowd.
  • Creates a power imbalance.
  • Leads to emotional and physical bullying.
  • Fosters fear of failure and a tendency to give up.
  • Is a constant reminder of self-defeating beliefs children may already have.
  • Increases performance anxiety in highly driven students and those expected by themselves or others to be perfect.

Competition and rewards also reinforce existing social hierarchies where the more socially and academically adept get the bulk of the positive feedback, rewards, and sense of accomplishment. So, instead of a secure climate where all children feel safe and can learn, we get a climate that encourages…

  • Cheating to win or come out on top
  • Meanness to build social status
  • Callous attitudes toward the success of our peers
  • Reliance on extrinsic motivation
  • Praise junkies who expect rewards for their efforts – verbal or tangible

And it damages instead of builds the critical personal connections, sense of  community, and caring relationships students and teachers need.

What can teachers do to minimize competition?

  1. Create a classroom climate of respect and empathy where we always treat each other in a caring way.
  2. Refrain from comparing students or pitting them against one another, and from offering artificial rewards.

For example, teachers sometimes use competitive games, such as a spelling bee or Jeopardy-type activity, to teach or to review material for a test. We view competitive games as something students like, a break from the routine that adds a little excitement.  But these games often fail to teach much, and, even worse, they are emotionally and socially counterproductive. While competition does get students’ adrenaline pumping, it also heightens emotions and causes discord that make it hard to calm down after the competition is over. And it is difficult to justify a spelling bee for instructional purposes when there are more effective and considerate ways to teach spelling than to make students spell words out loud in front of their classmates.

It is true that some children might enjoy spelling bees (usually the best spellers), but more find them just one more opportunity to fail…with an audience. And if not necessary, why use a teaching strategy that causes anxiety and taints the atmosphere?

Consider how you felt as a child and how you feel as an adult.
  • Did you enjoy spelling bees?
  • Would you like to participate in a spelling bee at a faculty meeting?
  • How about math flash cards or a game of American history “Around the World” at a staff-development workshop?

What an eye-opener. If we think of it from this perspective, we might feel differently about competitive games that pit one child or a group of students against one another. The brain can’t learn if it is in an anxious, fearful state. And we don’t want to make our students feel uncomfortable.

Keeping these understandings of human nature in mind may motivate us to stop using spelling bees, races to read the most books, and rewards for test scores or good behavior that result in pride for some and feelings of failure and embarrassment for others. Unless, that is, the competitive activity…

  • Is optional for self-selected students (no peer or teacher pressure),
  • Is a fun activity for the participants,
  • Does not waste instructional time,
  • Teaches students to play fair and be gracious winners and losers.

Otherwise, let’s make schools a healthy, competition-free zone.

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Posted on October 24, 2012, in Bullying and Harassment, Ideas to try, Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Liz, thank you once again for sharing your loving, sage thoughts…thus contributing to the betterment of not only our educational system, but the lives of all who pass through it–and ultimately, our world.

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