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Student Well-Being Opinion

Motivation for Learning: Competition Vs. Collaboration

By Starr Sackstein — February 07, 2017 3 min read
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Competition. A strong idea that propels many of us to motivate in real ways.

I’m fiercely competitive; I always have been. Having played many sports when I was a student, often as the only girl on an all-boys team, I clearly understood the level of play I needed to be at if I didn’t want to be made fun of or ostracized by my teammates.

Competition didn’t only come out on the field, it came out in the classroom too. Those days when exams were returned or projects handed out, all of us would gather to see who won the prize of the highest score. Eagerly, I would flip to the back page and promptly turn around to my friend Seth to see what he got. “Ha! I beat you by one point AGAIN!”

Looking back on this experience, I’m a little embarassed. After all, learning and sports, although exhibiting some elements of friendly competition, are really about collaboration. We need to be a team to really grow as learners and players.

As adult learners in a building, there are still uncomfortable levels of competition, whether it’s about evaluations or program assignments or maybe even likeability among our students. These aren’t popular things to admit, but they surely exist, the same way they do with our students.

That being said, collaboration is really the quality we must aspire to.

Each of us offers a wealth of experience and knowledge, but not without deficit. When we work with each other, our natural strengths have an opportunity to be challenged and improved and our deficits have the chance to be lessened. We are truly better together.

So how can we foster collaboration in our classrooms and schools?

We must develop environments that prize people working together over ones that promote a winner. I’m not suggesting, however, that everyone should get a trophy... that is a matter for another post.

Here’s what we can do:

  • Get rid of grades. Grading although one method of communicating learning, is a fairly ineffective one. And although this is the way we have always done it, it doesn’t serve anyone. Learning is personal and everyone does it at a different rate. We must have kids competing with themselves to progress not with each other when the starting point may not be the same and therefore unequal. Let’s make learning about learning and NOT about being better than our classmates or colleagues.
  • Offer opportunities in class for students to work together as a group. Allow natural problem solving to happen where students are giving a challenge and expected to figure out a variety of solutions together. In this same way, teachers need these opportunities as well in their learning experiences.
  • Build relationships. Give students multiple opportunities to get to know each other so that a trusting relationship can be built. There are more effective collaborations when we know and trust each other. Notice I didn’t say anything about liking each other. Sure that helps, but it certainly isn’t necessary to be able to work together. Healthy respect goes a long way that sometimes friendship can detract from in learning situations, especially for adolescents.
  • Don’t assume that kids know how to collaborate. Explicitly teach them how. Model it with other teachers. Show them the outcomes of collaborative efforts versus individual ones.
  • Be transparent. Not all collaborative efforts will be a success, especially not at first. It takes work to be able to find success in this model because it so different from a competition model. It’s okay to lean on each other for help and to switch roles and share responsibility, but all of that takes practice. Always build time in the experience for practice.

If we truly want to change the world (and/or education), we have to work together; it’s just too big of a project for any one person to take on alone. So if you have a great idea, share it. Find the right people who will lift you up and build it out and then make it happen. We are so much better together.

What’s one experience you have had that was more successful because you collaborated instead of working alone? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.