Competition in the Classroom

The 8th grade basketball team just came home with a banner from a basketball tournament that reads, “Consolation Champions”. They played three games: lost two of them and squeezed into third place by a few points. They finished with a record of 1 win and 2 losses. Three games, lost two of them, and come home with a banner that says, “Consolation Champions”. Am I missing something here?

I guess my sentiment would be a little different if these boys were actually proud of their banner. When I go to congratulate them, I am received with looks of sarcasm. I am actually trying to congratulate them, but they don’t believe me; they don’t even want to be congratulated. I guess my point here is that in certain contexts, not everyone needs to be awarded for just showing up. The whole “everybody wins” movement has little impact on what it is really trying to establish, and that is self-esteem.

What about competition in the classroom? Is there ever an instance where competition can be utilized in the learning environment in a way that elevates the standards of academics without taking away from a student’s self esteem? To me, the answer is quite simple: Yes. Competition, when occasionally used in a learning context provides students an opportunity to engage in stale curriculum in a fun and engaging manner. In that sense, competition in the classroom is not about a win/lose situation – it is about community building.

The contrarians to competition in the classroom suggest that utilizing such a means through learning opportunities provides the wrong kind of motivation and reward system. If the learning environment becomes saturated with competition, students will learn that learning is solely for the sake of extrinsic rewards. Thus, it is distracting and detrimental to learning.

This is completely true in many cases. However, this notion silences the fact that a classroom is a site where a variety of different people, personalities, and ultimately learners come to engage in school. If competition is so detrimental to learning that must mean that other modes of learning have profound salience and thus, can be detrimental as well. What about the learners who use competition to excel?(Usually, boys). Learning through exploration is beneficial to some and not others. Rigid rules, worksheets, and rote learning impact some learners more effectively than others. A learning environment is empathetic to the idea that while not all motivation is utopian, we nevertheless need to motivate and engage our students. And motivation through means of an external reward isn’t the end of the world. In my five years of teaching, I still have not found one framework for creating a learning environment that motivates every single one of my students. I shouldn’t look to close the door on motivation through competition just because culture is bent on childhood praise at all costs. Our students are indeed a part of the “participation trophy” generation, but in class, there are a few positives to having a platform that creates a few MVPs, playoff bound students, and “Consolation Champions”.


Share this Post

Comments 1

  1. Shauna Pollock

    As one of the so-called “contrarians to competition in the classroom,” I have lots to share and will do so in a more detailed blog post. For now, I am going to push back with my perspective and some questions.

    1. Rewards, prizes and awards, including letter, number and percentage grades are all part of what I consider competition. They are all results of a competitive culture. Our current educational system is build upon these ideas and it is difficult to challenge what we are used to. I want to encourage people to do so.
    When I consider the goal, the only goal, of school, I believe it is to learn. School should be a place where students learn about themselves, learn how to solve problems, learn how they learn and how they don’t learn, learn how to relate to others and become empowered to set goals and take on challenges in their lives.
    I think that competition and learning do not play well together. Even in small doses, I think competition undermines learning.

    2. I take issue with the binary of “competition” and “childhood praise at all costs.” I don’t think that consolation (like participation trophies or, as in the case of your story, the ridiculous idea of “Consolation Champions”) is the opposite of competition. To me, the opposite of competition is cooperation and collaboration. When collaborating, some ideas work better than others, people take on different roles and people step up and lead. People are working towards a common goal. In a competition, people are working towards the same goal, but at the cost of others. Someone has to win. For someone to win, everyone else has to lose. With every fibre of my being, I believe that losing, and even winning, is detrimental to learning.
    What do you think the opposite of competition is?

    3. When you said, “If the learning environment becomes saturated with competition, students will learn that learning is solely for the sake of intrinsic rewards. Thus, it is distracting and detrimental to learning,” I’m unclear what you mean by this. Are you talking about intrinsic motivation or extrinsic rewards?

    4. Many students (especially those who win often) do claim that rewards help them to learn and to excel.
    Competition is necessary in certain places, as in (some) sports leagues. I think, for those who claim to love competition, it is wonderful that they can participate. If someone is motivated by being the best and being recognized as such, they can find places to compete.
    However, in a classroom, I want to see more teachers closing the door on competition. As in so many things, we don’t know what we don’t know. When being given a chance to learn cooperatively and collaboratively, I think that all students will find ways to excel. They don’t need a mark, a reward or an award to learn. In fact, the mark, reward or award can stunt learning, students become focused on what they will “get” instead of what they can learn.
    What might happen if your students worked for the next month without getting any grades or rankings?

    5. I strongly encourage everyone to check out one of my favourite educational thought leaders, Alfie Kohn.
    Here is an article he wrote in 1987 called, “The Case Against Competition”:
    His thoughts continue to evolve, as in this article from 1993 that says no amount of competition is appropriate in a cooperative learning environment:
    His latest article (which I only discovered in writing this response) discusses the practice of “cold-calling” students (calling on those without their hands raised) – He continues to explore the issue of competition vs cooperation and how each impacts learning.
    Kohn has been fighting against competition in learning for many years and I appreciate his point of view. I hope you will find it interesting as well.

    I appreciate the opportunity to continue this conversation, Matthew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *