Competition II: In the School System

Project Based Learning, PBL, Learner-Perspective Coach

We began our 3-part exploration of competition with our first post focused on competition in the classroom. Now, in this second post, we will explore how systemic use of competition affects students. While teachers have a level of control of how students are taught within their four walls, the overall system our students are in also relies heavily on competition. While we won’t focus on the system itself (I could go on all day about how schools competing against each other for limited funding should be seen as criminal), our lens will be directed primarily to how students are affected by competitive systems.

The System If teachers use competition to motivate students to engage in study, why do schools use competition? While there are probably many reasons, I want to look at two: determining excellence and again, motivation.

Educators use competition in school systems to identify the brightest amongst students and to motivate them academically. Firstly, you may say that systems don’t use competition to determine who are the smartest students, they use assessment. While that is true, I argue that because assessment often determines students’ future opportunities (thus, integrating risk/reward) and grades them often in relation to their peers (grade curves, valedictorian honors, college admissions, etc..), this assessment fundamentally operates as a competition, and therefore carries the benefits and detriments of its application.

Project Based Learning, PBL, Learner-Perspective Coach

Regardless of what you call it, it works… from a certain standpoint. We know that the current system effectively delivers to universities and workplaces the “brightest” candidates, and leaves out the rest. But education is changing. The perspective we’re starting to adopt recognizes that the current measures of intelligence aren’t reflective of what they say they are. We’re also recognizing that if our goal is to educate all students, then this system fails there too. In fact, not only does it fall short on that front, but it is inherently set up for failure. If the goal of our education system is to educate all, then employing competition as a method of developing excellence makes no sense because competition, by nature, values individual success over collective excellence, thus crippling our ability to nurture all from the outset.

But competition does motivate students to excel academically right? When students are fighting for limited admission to a school, or to stand out as a job prospect over the rest, they have to push themselves in their studies to reach that goal. Shouldn’t that be sufficient? Unfortunately, we see clearly that that doesn’t apply to all students, especially those who cannot find the motivation to excel in that way for various reasons.

But even for those that it does work for, what kind of learners are we asking them to become? What is scary, is so many students don’t even understand why they are studying what they’re studying. This systematic adherence to competition is partly to blame. If their focus is on the goal (getting to college, getting a job, etc…) and not learning, what incentive do they have to even ask that question? What does that say about our attempts to develop innovative thinkers? What about curious minds? Somehow it seems like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. Isn’t it interesting how systems don’t necessarily have to tell students not to question why they’re learning what they are? The students were never asking in the first place.

But let's say we don’t care about all of those things: the bottom line is, competition still does develop excellence. Right?

Project Based Learning, PBL, Learner-Perspective Coach

Yes. It does. But again, there is a caveat. The excellence competition produces is only a relative excellence; as in an individual’s excellence is relative to their peers. The extent that a student wants to excel, whether that’s in math, art, history, language, etc. is defined one: by the school system, and two: by their peers. For example, a student wants to get an “A+” in math. So, that student will do everything they possibly can, so they can reach that 98%. Once they hit that range, their interest in studying math more wanes considerably. Unless of course, they want to be top of their class (or there’s a curve). In that case, they will do everything they possibly can to be better than the next highest student. But just that. If their peer gets a 98%, they just need 99%. Again, their desire to dive deeper, to understand, tends to max out at that point. This excellence we’re teaching students to achieve is based on artificial standards and relative assessment. This may function fine for some in school, but in a real-world context, many goals worth achieving are not reached with that mindset.

So then what does this do to their motivation? We’ve talked about motivation a lot on the level of a particular project or assignment, and on the level of classes. But how does competition affect their intrinsic motivation to learn in general?

Psychological studies (Lepper et al., 1973) have shown that incentivizing activities (especially in children) that people are intrinsically motivated to carry out, reduces people’s motivation to engage in that activity when the incentive is absent. For example, children in general, love coloring and drawing. But studies have shown that when children are taught to expect a reward for coloring, they show much less interest in coloring when there is no reward, versus children who were not expecting to be rewarded for coloring (who tended to maintain the same level of interest to color as before). Since competition, as systematized by many school systems, inherently functions as a reward system, these effects we can imagine, are quite realized.

In other words, competition can erode intrinsic motivation and joy in learning and doing.

So how do we move from this point on? There is no easy solution, no simple fix. But it does require us to reflect on the entire purpose of education at all. If schools are designed to get students into college and into the workforce, then we do nothing. But if the purpose of schools is to educate the population it serves, then we have to make concerted efforts to reform the way our school system works.

Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129-137.

This is the second post of a three part series on competition. See also Competition I: In the PBL Classroom and Competition III: As it Pertains to Society

Learn more about the author: Our amazing Learner-Perspective Coach - Dayyan Sisson - here.

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