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Competitive Lessons

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To appreciate how passionate some kids are about student academic competitions, you need only watch the National Spelling Bee on ESPN. Those boys and girls in that competition are engaged 100 percent in what they are doing. Other academic events, such as the Siemens-sponsored science competition,, showcase some of the most motivated students in the nation.

A colleague recently passed along an article that asks an important question: How might such competitions better inform educators and policymakers about how classroom learning should be designed and education policy crafted to maximize student motivation?

The article--which was written for the Education/Evolving Initiative, which seeks to connect the needs of today's students with education policy leaders--says that the universe of academic competitions "begs the attention of anyone interested in how to motivate students."

Yet the article points out that there are few studies, if any, that examine how the lessons learned from academic competitions might be used to better understand how students learn, what motivates them (intrinsically and extrinsically), and what real world experiences would benefit them the most.

Some education researcher (if one hasn't already) needs to tackle this topic and then spread the word about his or her findings. More than anything, the findings could provide major lessons for how schools can raise student motivation, and, in turn, achievement.

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Competition as motivation for learning is an interesting old idea. What has not been discussed is who loses in such a situation?
There is a long list. academic status is closely linked to economics so the winners tend to continue to be the wealthy kids. Gender also plays a strong part with girls out-perfoming boys in particular kinds of 'games' and boys outperforming girls in other kinds of 'games'... either way, it is the same top 50% of the class. Social status also plays a major role in who wins. Peer pressure in middle school and high school is a powerful thing... do we need to add public humiliation in academics to the list with more public competitions.
I did research in a city middle school (the only one in town). The kids who struggled to complete all the requirements to graduate came to the graduation ceremonies with their families. They all sat there while student awards were presented... mostly to kids who didn't even come... because, after all, middle school graduation only matters to kids who probably will not be having another graduation in their future.
Competition in academics in schools trumps progress for the students we are trying to engage.

the winners - economically gifted
the losers - economically deprived.

In motivation there is no "quick or easy fix". No one right way for everyone. But there are plenty of horror stories about those left out/pushed out/bullied out. Let's not add to their pain with half baked intentions.

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