Competition I: In the PBL Classroom

Healthy competition plays a central role in the way many systems motivate and develop excellence. The space race, sports, war; any situation where two or more opposing powers compete for limited resources has pushed humanity, on various scopes, to new frontiers. If we want students to excel, it’s only natural we use competition in education, right?

I’ve found that most educators find this statement to be true – whether consciously or not – on some level. But I’d like to pause and think a little more deeply about competition in the school setting, its underlying ideals, its practice in the classroom, its implications on wider society and how this all relates to project-based learning. To be able to dive deep enough into this topic, we can look at this from three different scopes: the classroom, the school, and the wider society.

The Classroom Throughout my educational experience, competition has been used in almost every classroom I’ve ever been in. Whether it was a competition to see which students could read the most books in a year, to who could score the highest on a state exam, I and my fellow peers, have gone through our education in an increasing state of competition. But why?

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After reflection, it seems that educators use competition (PBL educators included) to motivate students and create more engaging classroom experiences. And it works! I could cite countless times I felt motivated to be the first to finish a project or be the highest to score on my Spanish test or engage in whatever competitive task I was asked to participate in. But where did that motivation come from? And at what expense?

While teachers often find that classroom competition motivates students to engage in activities or projects, one has to wonder what the students are actually motivated for. I argue, that their motivation has very little to do with learning or the topic at hand; rather, students are motivated to edge out rival teams or students to achieve their individual goal. With triumph-over-others the primary motivation, students are never given the opportunity to explore a potential intrinsic interest. To test this theory, you can hold a competition in which there is a goal and a reward. Remove the reward (or end the competition), and see how motivated the students are to continue exploring the subject material. While there will be natural variance, one could predictably imagine that many students cease their exploration.

When the motivation to learn is misdirected in the context of competition, it has deep effects on the way students engage with the material they are studying. When a teacher sets up a competition in the classroom, they define the rules of the competition, the scope of the activity the students are engaged in, and the goals and rewards at stake. What this means, is that the depth of a student’s learning only extends within the scope that a teacher defines. For example, if my only reason to learn about the function of submarines is so that I can create a submarine better than my classmates, then I only desire to learn just enough about submarines to satisfy my teacher’s requirements and edge out my competitors. So, if the teacher says make a submarine that can dive 10 feet, my classmates make submarines that can dive 11 feet, I’ll only try to make my submarine dive 12. Further, I may not decide to learn about the history of submarines, or how they can be used to explore the ocean or investigate how to make a submarine that can dive and fly in the air. If a student is motivated solely by the competition, then the competition defines the scope of a student’s learning. It caps the learning. The competition sets an arbitrary and unnecessary ceiling.

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Additionally, the way the student interacts with the subject material in the future becomes largely influenced by the experience they have with that competition. Students who “win” or excel, will feel more motivated to continue learning about the subject beyond the competition, versus those who perceive perhaps that they aren’t “smart” enough or good enough to explore it more. When we constantly subject students to these formative experiences anchored in extrinsic motivation schemes, what are the long-term effects on the psychology of their learning? I can’t image the answer to be very uplifting.

Here’s another question to nibble on: When we believe competition is necessary to make projects engaging, what is the underlying assumption we’re making about student motivation? Maybe, it's that students will not be intrinsically engaged by the subject matter or the project. This is dangerous to assume, simply because it just may not be true. But if it is true, then what? If an activity isn’t engaging enough to students without competition, then maybe there’s some flaw in the activity, not just the students who don’t percolate to the surface of the competition.

All of these ideas seem to operate on a more prevalent level with students and teachers engaged in project-based learning. I think this is partly because cooperation is one of the fundamental tenets of project-based learning. How ironic, that a system that often employs the terms “cooperation” and “collaboration” can host competition so pervasively.

My own experiences, research, and observations have led me to believe that competition works strongly against the principles of collaboration and cooperation that many schools and classrooms are working so hard to implement into the psyche of their students. How does competition ask students to engage with the material? How does competition ask students to engage with their peers? How does competition ask students to engage with their teachers? What are the long-term implications on the way students treat their education? What are the long-term implications on the society that they will contribute to in the

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future? I will only pose these questions because it would take too long to explore them in any meaningful detail here, but I feel we need to spend some time stewing on the implications of potential “answers.” This may prove to be insightful.

So then, you may be asking, what are the alternatives? I think we already innately know the answer: cooperation. Often projects have goals and rewards. How would a teacher define them without limiting the scope of the students’ learning? Even more intriguingly, how would a teacher motivate students to become engaged? How do we overcome the mental barriers that exist in our students that have already gone through years of competitive learning experiences?

One method (not to be carried out in isolation of other methods) is to have students work together on an intriguing goal. Starting a food truck (a herculean task for anyone) for example, was one way my teachers motivated my sophomore class to dive headfirst into our studies of economics and language. By shifting the attention from beating out each other, to achieving a monumental task, my teachers avoided the trap of “relative excellence” and successfully kept us motivated to learn about relevant materials for an entire school year. Other methods focus on letting students explore interests to depths that pass basic proficiency, allowing them to reach levels of excellence the teacher could not have anticipated.

Still, many of the answers to this question remain unexplored. To be able to perceive them with more open eyes, we have to begin to shift the way we think about motivation and excellence, and truly embrace ideals of cooperation, collaboration, and unity, not just in thought, but in action. In this way, our classrooms can nurture students with deeper wells of curiosity and desire, and give them the tools to reach levels of achievement, excellence, and understanding we haven’t yet seen.

This is the first post of a three part series on competition. Coming soon Competition II: In the School System and Competition III: As it Pertains to Society

Learn more about Learner-Perspective Coach Dayyan Sisson here.

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