Saturday, March 22, 2008

Is Competition a good thing?

When I was going to college at UMF, (which by the way has a new Master's Program in Education) we had a guest speaker in our Philosophy of Education class. He made the assertion that we need to take the competition out of education. That had me thinking recently. Would this be a good idea or not?

In the classroom, competition has the potential to be unifying and motivating. Think of the kind of solidarity and loyalty that builds in team or group activities like sports and clubs. The rivalries between school teams often bring in the community and sometimes even draw larger attention. In the classroom, at least at the high school level. Students seem to be driven by the sense of competition.

The flip-side, however is nasty. Some high school students define their academic successes by how many people are below them academically-- class rank, test scores, GPAs. What's really disturbing is to see some students with less concern about how they are doing and improving, and more concerned with making sure the rules of the game are designed in such a way that the competition stays down. For example, when our school changed grading systems, there was a major outcry from some parents and students. They were concerned that the grading system was going to make it harder to receive the top grades their students were used to achieving. They seemed a lot less interested in the question, "What are you learning, and are you growing as a learner?" and wanted to know how this would effect GPA, honor roll and class rank. These are the types of competition that I think deserve close scrutiny. I know that class rank is important to college admissions counselors because it provides some measure for comparing students within the environment in which they were educated, and therefore, it does serve a purpose. The larger question seems to be how we foster an importance on learning... not on grades and ranks, but on learning itself.

Of the public meetings I attended, I rarely saw parents of students who were not "winning at the game of school" probably because those parents feel isolated, left out or disaffected by schools. I think that schools face many challenges, but the highest among them is involving students and their parents (and sometimes even teachers) in the process of learning. It seems like such an obvious statement, but next time you are talking with a teacher or administrator, student or parent, ask them when the last time is that they talked about how we learn, why we learn and what's important to learn. In this time of year we worry about calendars, committees, budgets and graduation plans but it should always be about learning. When we get to that point in the schools, competition will not be as relevant an argument because then, everyone truly wins.

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