I'm very competitive--to a fault, my family would say, ever since we bought a Ping Pong table a few months ago. Yet I also know there's a time and a place for competition. And rarely--on second thought, never--have I seen competition in the classroom help students more than it hurt them.
A primary pitfall of pitting students against each other in class is that they have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals. So whereas my opponents and I choose to take each other on at Ping Pong, many students would never choose to put their math or science or social studies knowledge on the line against each other. And as disappointing as losing can be under any circumstance, it can be downright demoralizing when you feel defeated before you start--as was the case for many students I subjected to classroom competitions before I realized this.
You would think--or at least I thought--that having students compete against each other in teams would alleviate discomfort for those who stand (or think they stand) no chance of winning on their own. As it turns out, though, team competitions can be even more stressful for students who, due to lack of confidence or ability, are unwilling or unable to carry their weight. Team competitions can also cause frustration and resentment for students who do carry their weight but fail to win because of their "slacker" teammates. And getting back to those "slackers," being on the winning team is often no better for them than losing, since they then have to deal with fallout from getting a reward neither they nor their classmates think they deserve.
Speaking of rewards, the fact teachers typically attach prizes or class points to winning a competition only further ensures a counterproductive experience for students. There's no getting around it: if one student or group is recognized as the winner, all other students are, by implication, the losers. Never mind how hard you tried or how much you learned--if you didn't get the right answers and get them first, you lost. And yet in my experience students can only reach their academic potential when we reinforce individual effort and improvement over ability, not the other way around.
What's more, even students for whom competition brings out the best get the wrong message each time they earn a reward for winning a classroom contest. As I pointed out previously in Why Extra Credit is Extra Wrong, it's a disservice to students to dangle rewards in front of them that will be withheld in future settings such as college.
Now if you think I'm being soft here, again I'm all about competition. But let students find outlets in which they wish to compete--whether in sports, art, music, chess, debate, or extracurricular academic activities. The classroom, meanwhile, should be a place where kids compete against their individual potential, not each other.
And if you still think I'm being soft, Ping Pong anyone?
Image by Photomaniac, provided by Dreamstime license
Join my mailing list for announcements about webinars and the work I do to improve teaching and learning.