Competition comes back

Competition — the old-fashioned kind with winners and losers — is making a come back, writes June Kronholz on Education Next.  Despite educators’ qualms, smart kids are signing up for bees, bowls and academic olympiads.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is using harder and harder words —  Laodicean, Maecenas, menhir, apodyterium, herniorrhaphy in 2009 — because more and more competitors are working harder and harder.

Today’s teachers generally cringe at everything about that development. All those hours spent on one narrow academic focus! All that rote learning! All that stressful competition! And if some children shine on that national stage, what about the self-esteem of every other child whose luster is publicly shown to be not as bright?

Still, the National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee are booming; so is MATHCOUNTS, sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers and technology companies.  Then there’s “the National Science Bowl sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, a Bible Bowl, grammar bowls, and an International Brain Bee, where finalists identify the parts and functions of the brain—using human brains.”

Bee contestants tend to be high achievers in everything, Kronholz writes.

They challenge themselves with the toughest courses their schools offer, and still make time for sports, Key Club, Boy Scouts, piano, or the school robotics team. Some claim Rolodex memories; others attribute their success to hard—really hard—work.

But educators dislike competition because they fear many students will see themselves as losers and quit trying.

Susan Brookhart, a former education professor turned consultant on testing and motivation, says competition is good only for the winners.  Competition “creates this idea among students that there are winners and losers, and ‘puts them in their place’ in that universe,” Brookhart added.

That thinking has reshaped teaching over the past two decades. Classroom work is more collaborative and team-based, especially in math and science, where girls in particular are said to have benefited. Tracking and ability grouping have fallen into disfavor, easing the slower-learner stigma. Portfolio assessments are gaining ground. Report cards set out individualized goals.

During the self-esteem movement of the 1990s, “schools dropped honor rolls, the class valedictorian, and assemblies that recognized academic stars, but not, of course, assemblies that recognized football or basketball or golf stars. . . . Everyone got a ‘good job’ sticker, good job or not.”

For top students, there’s little public recognition. The best students usually can find gifted-and-talented programs and accelerated classes, Kronholz writes. But some want more challenge — and a chance to impress elite universities. They love to win, but they’re not crushed by defeat. Competing is “fun,” contestants tell Kronholz.

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  1. So because one professor of education decries rote memorization as competition, all teachers hate it?

    Many teachers encourage participation in the activities mentioned in this posting and wish there were more, not less of it, in today’s mushy curricula.

  2. There is such a thing as a classroom (or school) environment that’s too competitive. But such places are vanishgly rare in the US. Rather than trying to hide the fact that some children are highly motivated and/or intelligent, we should be building curricula for slower/less motivated students where they can achieve and experience mastery, something we don’t currently do very well. In theory, technology should make this challenge easier but so far, not so much.

  3. Allison says:

    Reading the article, Brookhart’s quote is worse:
    “Anything that sets up a universe where it looks like being smart and dumb are traits that you’re born with is not good for learning for anyone except—surprise!—the winners”

    So, is she too dumb to realize her error–that competitions have to do with practice, discipline, and drive, not smart and dumb as traits “you’re born with”? Do her own unspoken biases peek through here? Does she really believe smart and dumb are traits you’re born with, despite all rhetoric to the contrary? Or is she just disingenuous, and maligning the competitions knowing full well the value of practice, discipline, and drive?

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Children who know themselves to be unconditionally loved by parents, the rest of the family, and (dare I say it?) God, are not overly bothered by losing a competition. It is not the whole of life or of their well being.

  5. Failing in a competition is a lot less harmful than failing to be competitive.

  6. reminds me of a quote from “The Incredibles,”

    Mom: “Everyone is special, Dash..”

    Dash: “…which means nobody is….”

  7. Genevieve says:

    I think an important factor is how the competitions are set up. My daughter recently competed in a Chess tournament through our school district. They were divided up by supposed ability level( I like this), but were mixed grades. She as a 1st grader played a 4th grader and a 5th grader (double elimination). She lost. Luckily she seems to understand that if she practices more, she will do better next year. There were other children there that were in tears (also playing students much older). I think that if it had been better set up, that children would have had more of a chance to be successful, while still learning that sometimes you lose.

  8. I’d like to see the research that “cooperative learning” benefits anybody. Group work is one of the reasons why my daughter hates schoo – she does all the work while the other kids in the group play around and share the credit. How is that good for anybody? Rather than being cooperative she hates working with other kids and the lazy kids learn to use others to do the work for them. How educational.

  9. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    The so called educational leadership have once again demonstrated that their collective brain activity is exceeded by that of a a single houseplant.

    Competition exists because people pursue a prize and there are not enough prizes to go around. There are staged competitions, like races, contests, and sports, but there are many competitions in life that exist just because there’s no magic genie indulging all our fantasies. If a 1000 people want to be astronauts, and there is a need for only a dozen, then we’ve got ourselves a competition, and this fact doesn’t change because we’ve removed all the staged competitions around us. Our leafy educational leadership doesn’t seem to understand this.

    A teacher in the lunchroom once told me about his athletically talented son who’s always happened to have played on losing teams. This kid likes to win, but has learned to accept defeat graciously and productively. Yet what a 13-year-old can understand evades the houseplants.

    Losing helps people establish what they’re good at, what they need to work at, and what they probably won’t be good at, liberating them to concentrate on productive areas. The saddest thin I saw as a teacher were students who were planning to be engineers and yet they really stank at physics and math. They will likely learn defeat in a much more expensive setting.

  10. Scrooge McDuck says:

    So, is she too dumb to realize her error–that competitions have to do with practice, discipline, and drive, not smart and dumb as traits “you’re born with”?

    I thought you were a fan of Charles Murray.

  11. “But educators dislike competition because they fear many students will see themselves as losers and quit trying.”

    Why do we wonder, wail,and gnash our teeth when we learn that our schools are so bad? Here is one of the many reasons. Teachers learn this nonsense in ed school after having been exposed to it for 12 years prior to college. No reason to wonder.

  12. SuperSub says:

    “But educators dislike competition because they fear many students will see themselves as losers and quit trying.”

    Good, they should, at whatever task they are attempting. If the school is doing its job, then they should be able to find something they are good at and focus there.

    NY used to have various Regents diplomas that had different concentrations. Students would take more courses in the area that they wanted to focus in, and less in others. That went away I believe around 2001 or so, and now everyone, including those who would have been able to complete the non-Regents local diploma, are pushed into a single diploma system that has been watered down to the point of being meaningless.