Competition is powerful, so use it with care

Nearly 30 years ago, Alfie Kohn made his case against competition.

“It’s always unnecessary and inappropriate at school, at play and at home,” he wrote, citing studies that show children learn better when they work together. Kohn argued that competition makes children anxious and humiliates the losers, with no clear benefit to the winners.

In the past few decades, Kohn’s words have had more impact on public education than on “play” and “home”. While schools have promoted cooperative learning and positive self-esteem, American parents have embraced competition, pushing their children to be the best at hockey, ice skating, violin and so on.

Our popular culture has also wholeheartedly embraced competition, from Survivor, the Amazing Race and American Idol to intense live cooking competitions.

Even in education, competition is growing. When I was a kid in the ’70s, there were spelling bees, math teams and debate teams. Today we have the Geography Bee, Brain Bee, Robotics FIRST, Junior Achievement Titan, Science Olympiad, National Economics Challenge, and A/C/E Team (Architecture/Construction/Engineering).

There are contests that measure your knowledge of mythology, history, fossils, marketing, even copyediting skills – almost anything you can imagine.

Is all of this dangerous, as Kohn warned us, or a concession to the fact that our brains are wired for competition?

As teachers, should we be looking for ways to harness the power of competition or trying to squelch it?

I think we need to harness the power of competition, but with an acute awareness of its risks. Competition can be counterproductive and destructive, as Kohn said. I have seen students become arrogant and contemptuous in competitive situations, and it negatively impacts everyone around them. I have also seen over-stressed children burned out on athletics early in high school.

Why would I support competition, knowing the risks?

Because competition can also be engaging, fun and a way to encourage collaboration and team-building. Many students form tight, lifelong bonds with their teammates, whether in baseball or mock trial.

I have seen how well-designed academic competitions can engage and challenge students like nothing else, and I have seen students flourish and grow, just by preparing for contests.

Competition taps into some part of us – a powerful motivation that just doesn’t surface when you’re sitting alone reading and writing.

I was at an Economics Challenge competition with three teams of students earlier this week, and while they were filling out their evaluation forms, I overheard some of their perspectives.

“What did I learn from Econ Challenge?” one boy said, smiling. “I learned how much I don’t know!”

Another said, “I never thought I would find it fun to take multiple choice tests on economics. But when you get to the higher level, the questions are hard and really engage your brain.”

Every week before and after school, I have students in my classroom strategizing about their own businesses, studying up on Roth v. Traditional IRAs and tutoring their peers in game theory, all motivated by the thrill of competition. It’s the most exciting, learning-filled time of the day, although it’s the least structured.

Some of these kids are excellent all-around students; others are not so motivated in the traditional classroom. A few have performed well in sports too, but many find academic competition their one opportunity to shine.

If you ask them why they do it, they’ll tell you it’s fun. More fun, it seems, than any other form of studying.

I do think Kohn raised legitimate concerns about competition. When winning is the only priority, and too much focus is put on “all-stars,” competition will turn classmates into rivals, encourage cheating and create an unhealthy school community.

But when teachers and coaches model healthy competition – an emphasis on preparation, teamwork and fun – it can be a highly effective motivational strategy.