Competition saturates our world: sports, politics, televised cooking competitions, so many aspects of our culture increasingly strive to crown a winner and send someone else packing. Even my power bill carries a chart that compares me to my neighborhood average and lets me know that my frugal neighbor uses less energy in a week than I burn through in a good hot shower.
In schools, microcosms of our society, this competitive attitude shows up in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s fun: the lunchtime three-legged race, Kahoot reviews, and kickball tournaments in PE classes. Sometimes it can be stressful: Who made the field hockey team? Who won the Geography Bee? And at it’s best it’s kept in perspective.
Using the competitive spirit in the right ways can lead to great results: an outstanding student design for the Spirit Day t-shirts or an improved time on the mega-run in PE. Competition without care, however, can lead to frustration or even resentment. The words we use to talk about success in the classroom must be chosen in a way that doesn’t simply create winners and losers. I loath that my frugal neighbor seems to live life by the light of a single candle. He can’t have kids, I tell myself. I’ll bet he’s figured out a way to shower at work.
It’s a feeling not unfamiliar to some of us who came of age in the bell curved grading world of the 1970s and 80s. For every valedictorian there were a slew of other students who tried hard, cared about learning, and found themselves distant runners up. It might not have mattered for some, especially as those who loved learning continued their education beyond the classroom walls, but for others the sting of “losing” stuck around in very real ways.
I’m happy that education, at least at my school and in my district, is moving in the other direction. It makes be proud to know that we’ve opened doors for students to challenge themselves in honors classes, and that increasingly we’re working to support all students to embrace a growth mindset, set high goals, and work to achieve them.
It’s a path toward learning not unlike a “roller coaster lab” I saw last week in an 8th grade science class. Working together, students constructed foam tracks that met certain engineering criteria and then rolled marbles from where those tracks were attached to the rafters to where they ended on the floor. Given freedom to innovate and a clear purpose, students collaborated and came up with amazing designs as they learned about scientific principles in a hands on way.
“Some of the students who never volunteer answers in class take a lead in this,” the teacher told me. “And you see some students who have it down theoretically lean on those with an eye toward practical application.” She smiled the smile of a veteran teacher. “In the end they all get it, and they remember it.”
Like that roller coaster lab, it’s in collaboration, not competition, that our best future resides. Sure, the road there may be a winding one, filled with dips and loop-de-loops, and the risk of sliding off the track, but as we recognize that we’re on this adventure together, we can feel the exhilaration of progress without shying away from the fear of failure.
Is this post an overly rosy picture of schools as collaborative spaces? Am I dwelling on the successes to the point of minimizing the challenges?
Students cheered aloud when they saw successful roller coaster marble runs, their own and their peers’.
I firmly believe that it is a worthy task for educators to celebrate cooperation in the classroom and save competition for the playing field (and even there balanced by sportsmanship and kept in real perspective).
At their best, schools and classrooms, like loving families and relationships, are filled with collaboration, communication, and kindness.
We all can contribute to a world that defines success beyond winning. Me, you, and even my frugal neighbor (who is probably reading this post by the feeble light from the glow of a lit cigar) can make a difference. Together.