I Like to Compete

I like competition and I think it can be a very healthy motivator for kids.


Many people will most likely disagree with this statement as many people think competition is not a good thing and leads to cheating, bias, and overall inequalities. While I can see those potential problems I think there are many positives to competition among kids.

First, let me explain that I was an athlete my whole childhood and into college. When I wanted to get better at basketball I played against the older kids. Playing against kids that were better than me pushed me to become better and work harder. Now, I am not saying having a 12 year old compete with a 17 year old is going to be a good idea. However, I think if you are in a situation where you compete with those slightly better than you, it will push your performance. I can say for sure that I became better through competing with those at my level and certainly with those a little better than me.

When I was in the fourth grade I remember “racing” to finish my math facts worksheets and being rewarded when I was the first one done. I feel pretty confident that I got better at math when I was competing with my classmates. In high school I worked hard to be at the top of my class because I knew that those end of the year awards would help me get scholarships and into the college I wanted. Again, that competition with my classmates helped me achieve my goals, both personal and academic.

To make yet another analogy, I am a gamer. I love playing video games on my Nintendo Wii and have always loved playing video games. With most games you can change the level of difficulty based on your ability. If you are a novice, you can play the entry level so as not to get frustrated playing at an expert level. In most classrooms we are asking all kids to play at an expert level with novice abilities.

With that being said, why does competition get a bad name in schools? If pushing ourselves to be the best and competing with others can potentially motivate and make us better, why is it bad?

The biggest issue is that it’s not fair to all. Schools are set up in such a way that students are put into classrooms based on when they were born and not their academic or social level. Students sitting in our classrooms are along a spectrum of abilities and often that gap is great. Expecting them to compete on a level playing field is similar to me competing with Michael Jordan in his prime. It would be unfair and ultimately frustrating. Too often kids are competing in an unfair situation. This is when competition is bad. Those that don’t have a chance of success will ultimately give up and stop whatever task they are doing, athletic, academic or otherwise.

In addition, there are often awards associated with competition. In terms of academics, the awards are grades, honor rolls, class ranks, and other certificates and trophies. For those students at the perceived “top”, these awards are great. They push themselves to get those awards and compete with their classmates. However, only a small number of students actually have a chance of winning these awards, so many students don’t try. If you don’t have a chance of winning, why would you compete? Again, why would I challenge Michael Jordan to a game of one on one, knowing I can’t win?

Yet, I still think competition can help students learn and push themselves. However, I think there are a few things that have to happen. First, if you are going to use competition don’t have unfair competitions. In others words, don’t set kids up for failure through unfair competitions. Every kid should be on a level playing field if there is going to be fair competitions. How often does this happen in our classrooms though? When we have races in math class, does everyone have a chance to “win”?

Is it possible to change competition so that students are competing with others at their level or possibly create a culture of competing with themselves? Can the goal of winning be learning and not an award? How do we do this?

16 comments:

Dreams said...

When my children were young I put them in swimming. When they were at the meet they were competing with the kid in the next lane that was true. Moreover they were competing with themselves as they tried to better their own time and the whole team would stand at the edge of the pool encouraging them to do that! Yes, competition has its places.

Sue Downing said...

My opinion of competition in the classroom has been profoundly affected by Rick Lavoie. He favors a reevaluation of competition in the classroom, asserting that competition is only motivating for those who think they can win. He notes that many who support competitive classroom activities believe they are preparing students for the competitive world they will live in. He responds that adults choose with whom and under what circumstances they will enter a competition. I am all for competition as long as the choice to compete is made by the student.

Josh Stumpenhorst said...

Sue,

I agree with Lavoie as well. Too often we make kids compete when a majority of them have no chance of winning. Humans in general like competition so long as they have a chance of winning. Kids will choose to compete if they feel they can win but that is clearly not what happens a majority of time in our schools.

Dave Meister said...

Josh I feel the same way about competition. I will compete with you in almost anything, don't care what it is or if you have a big advantage. My background in athletics has helped me to be this way. I was lucky to be brought up in a home with balance, I was encouraged to do everything and I was made to believe that doing my best was all that was expected, win or lose. Unfortunately, so many children are not allowed to compete at a level where they can achieve success and they are taught that not winning is shameful. Our culture does not always celebrate effort of those who do not finish on top. Your post has a lot for us to contemplate. I agree sometimes we push kids to do things they cannot do with group they cannot compete with, but I think it is also true that we have quit challenging some of the top students because we concentrate on those kids that are just below the norm so we can "meet" expectations. You are so right, we need to quit basing school grouping on age! It needs to be more about ability!

Josh Stumpenhorst said...

Dave,

Thanks for the comment. You bring up a very good point. With a lack of competition, are kids not learning how to fail and "deal" with how to overcome those losses. I know I became better at many things because of my competative nature. However, I see kids that are forced to "compete" for grades and awards when they have no chance. This creates a situation where students become jaded and give up. I think there is a fine line between challenge and setting up for failure. Key is to find where that line is, which is certainly different for every individual.

George Couros said...

Interesting post Josh...As a person that competed in athletics I have that competitive side, but the way that it has been traditionally in schools has not been beneficial to most.

Reading books like "Drive" changed my thoughts on the rewards mentality that we have in schools, but as I have progressed in my readings, especially in the business sector, this "competitive" spirit is not as dominant as it was in culture. "Good Boss, Bad Boss" talks about when we create places built on competition, especially when it deals with ideas, people tend to put all of their best knowledge under lock and key as sharing may give an advantage to those they compete with. He also shares a story about how a company got rid of their top salesperson because his "competitive" nature led him to stepping on those around him. After they fired the guy, although no one met his mark, the sales of the company went up substantially.

Now something that I have seen in our own school that has "collaborative-competition" is when our grade 1 classes compete each other for a weekly spelling championship. This pushes kids in the class to do better for the whole, while still having that competitive edge.

There are many places for competition in schools (sports teams, etc.), but we need to think in the abundance mentality in the classroom. The difference between say sports and a classroom is that many kids choose to be there and choose the competition; most kids are just placed in schools.

Kyle said...

Hey Josh thanks for the post. Have you read Michelle Baldwin's post titled "When Competition Fails Us"? You can find it here: http://bit.ly/foEBH0 - yours made me think of that and didn't know if you've read it. I've always been pretty competitive, but for the majority of my K-12 years that was in music, not athletics.

I'm all for competition if it's by choice. How do we bring about intrinsic competition in the classroom? Meaning, to strive to do better than I (the student) did the last time.

clehnhoffbell said...

I love to compete as well. And can sometimes get really into it, so I understand that kiddos like to compete as well. In the classroom, I've been working to make the competition about improvement, hard work; making these the definition of "winning" shifts the students mindsets. A great Kagan quote I like is "The student working the hardest is learning the most." Great post!

clehnhoffbell said...

I love to compete, too! So I understand that many of my students enjoy it also. I also know that the culture of education reinforces this. So how to change the mindsets of a middle schooler?

I have been redefining what it means to "win" in my classroom. Hard work and improvement are the goal. Growth is our goal! Measuring success by asking, "do I know more today, than I did yesterday?"

You've got this going on! You're students are self motivated- creating their own ways to show their mastery of com arts. Enjoy your blog throughly!

Josh Stumpenhorst said...

Thanks for all the comments. You are all bring up some very valid points. I think wanting to win is something that should be encouraged and fostered within every kid. The issue is that winning is often tied to a grade or an award. Instead winning should be a combination of learning from mistakes, trying hard, and showing growth. When I ran (jumped) track in college I had an amazing coach by the name of Al Carius, who always told us to, “Run for fun and personal bests.” His core philosophy was for each athlete to compete with themselves and ultimately that was success. How can we get this mentality into classrooms?

brynlarks said...

Great post Josh! I am torn about the word competition myself because I also feel this inner motivation to keep up with my peers. However, as a few of the other comments have referenced, this is not in reference to coming out on top or one-upping someone else. I guess my concern is that I am able to step on the same court as the more experienced or "older kids" as you say it. As an educator, I feel lucky to have a PLN to keep me up to par.

I think we need to compete with ourselves or better yet challenge ourselves to be constantly evolving. That is not a bad thing in the least!

Dave Meister said...

I think the difference between constructive and destructive competition is where the focus of the competition is set. If we force students to compete only against one another it is destructive. The best competition is with oneself. If I get better, I always win. So, I agree with George, we need to create a culture where we celebrate each others success and learn to celebrate those personal victories. Lastly, we need to make the experiences in our schools varied enough that each individual finds a set of skills they are passionate about improving.

Chris Wejr said...

Thanks for continuing this important conversation, Josh. I, too, am like you: I enjoy sports and I agree with Lavoie that competition needs to be a choice. Alfie Kohn has me thinking though as he states in every competition, the goal is to DEFEAT someone and therefore, hurts learning. I am starting to reflect on if competition should have a role in education. Seeing how sport has such a large role in my life, and taking in the perspective from Kohn, this puts me in a direction in which I am not sure where to go. Our society has competition deeply embedded in so many areas - elections, sports, business - yet I see so many collaborative initiatives doing so many great things. I know George has mentioned "collaborative competition" where the focus in on team but in then end, is the focus on learning or winning? And what happens when competition is not there - will learning exist as it was?

The more I think about this topic, the more questions I have.

Anonymous said...

Oh well...I have always disliked competition. Because it is geared toward achievement as opposed to growth...
"Pushing" oneself makes no sense to me in its basic sense. I know that when I was passionate about something I simply learn, make mistakes and learn more. Without a social context - which is irrelevant to me.
@surreallyno

Rebecca and Donna said...

When I do team challenges in the classroom I let my students each decide for themselves whether they are doing it to win or just for fun. But I never do team challenges without lots of debriefing so that students reflect on their contributions, behaviors, and abilities as a team. I also try to do lots of whole class competition, trying to beat our record, winning marbles for things we are working on, seeing how fast we can line up by height. Fund raising efforts where grade levels try to out raise money for a cause (penny wars) also feeds the competition need. I do not encourage competition between students or groups of students in my classroom because it tends to break down the cooperative community spirit I work so hard to build.

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I don't know about you, but I am competitive and I like to compete in all activities especially in education and sports. I never step backward any of my competition that’s why today I am a successful man.