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Competition should have no place in K-12 education

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Let’s stop the hippy dippy nonsense and teach our kids that the real world sucks and that we need to learn how to deal with it.” Maybe not everyone should get a trophy, but maybe not everyone should be making YouTube videos.

Competition currently has a very prominent place in K-12 academic settings, a central place, but it should not. The elevated position that competition has in K-12 academics is likely driven by the American focus on winning (at the expense of others losing) and the traditional schooling focus on ranking children in order to know which members of the working class would be afforded the privilege of higher education to be allowed to take on the higher paying, more white collar jobs.

The reason competition should not have a place in K-12 academic settings is because it does virtually nothing to aid in learning, and in fact most likely detracts from learning. If the purpose of education (or schooling) is to develop the capacity of children to learn new and valued information, to think for themselves, to become lifelong learners, then competition is not a necessary or a helpful ingredient.

Further, if we are measuring children based on how they perform against other children then most kids become losers. This is a self-evident reality given that at best for every winner you must have at least one loser, and that requires a one-on-one competitive scenario. In a scenario where there is only one winner out of a group of children, the ratio skews towards more losers quickly; and in a tournament everyone but one student is left a loser. Even if we stick to the one-on-one scenarios, where 50% of the children are losers on any given task, it is easy to see how quickly the losses will start piling up, even for the more capable and driven students.

Many (most?) people argue that competition is a necessary youthful experience that develops grit and teaches kids perseverance, but the research does not support that. Further, even if those were goals that adults had for children to prepare them for a grown-up world rife with competition, it would not provide a sufficient argument for introducing competition into an education system where the focus (one would hope) is on learning.

Relative to cooperation, competition fails to promote learning or motivation to learn. In The Effects of Cooperation and Competition on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance by John M. Tauer and Judith M. Harackiewicz, the authors failed to provide compelling examples of where competition produced better outcomes than cooperation. The best they could seemingly do was find examples where competition wasn’t noticeably less effective that cooperation, although they found plenty of examples of cooperation being a superior model for children to learn and develop under. They did, however, identify that intergroup competition (which created an environment of both competition and cooperation) produced better results in their specific tests than either competition or cooperation alone, although I would be skeptical of relying on someone else to calculate the proper amount of competition in an activity that takes it from being harmful to being helpful – especially if it were my child that was the guinea pig.

Alfie Kohn, an independent researcher and progressive education advocate who opposes classroom competition articulately highlighted some of his concerns in his essay, The Case Against Competition. In the essay, Kohn references the work of David Johnson who reviewed every study he could identify on competition between the years 1924 to 1980.  “Sixty-five of the studies found that children learn better when they work cooperatively as opposed to competitively, eight found the reverse, and 36 found no significant difference. The more complex the learning task, the worse children in a competitive environment fared.” The case is clear, competition likely does more harm than good relative to cooperation.

Further, while competition is of questionable value in the schooling system and perhaps in life, cooperation has huge value in both arenas. In the academic world, collaboration is critical to developing and refining one’s ideas, to getting critical feedback, and to finding shared solutions to vexing problems without having to rely on constant direction from a teacher, along with other benefits. In life cooperation is essential in most sectors of the economy, and unlike preparing for a competitive world by inculcating education with competition, cooperation in preparation for future life experiences does not detract from education.

Unfortunately, most parents are unable to convince a school to move away from the competition model and toward the cooperation model. Those parents have two potential solutions, they can look for a progressive alternative school that rejects competition, or they can homeschool.

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7 Responses to " Competition should have no place in K-12 education "

  1. I agree, competition can often be counter productive to education.

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  2. Ashley says:

    Great post! When children are raised in competition, the capacity to tolerate and cope with failure are greatly diminished.

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