Assessment Opinion

Competition vs. Collaboration

By Deborah Meier — February 07, 2013 6 min read
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For the third week, Alfie Kohn joins Deborah Meier on the blog.

Dear Debbie,

It goes without saying that we’re not going to convince everyone—and, in this culture, we may struggle to convince even a substantial number —of the merit of any of the positions we support. That doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying, of course. But when you ask, “If [our views are] as sensible as you and I think, how come the world is still plagued by its obsession with punishment?”, well, I guess we need to remind ourselves that the unpopularity of a viewpoint doesn’t in itself constitute an argument against it.

At the same time, something we believe is wrong doesn’t become right just because we’ve watered it down a little, such as by offering a few open-response items on a high-stakes test or making sure that children are punished by nice people whom they’ve trusted. I know we may have to settle for a compromise sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the action isn’t still troubling.

Things get more interesting when the moral questions really are unclear, as they may be when, to take your example, Deb, what’s best for one person isn’t best for the group. That’s much too ambitious an issue for a couple of blog posts; it encompasses the limits of utilitarianism, the struggle between collectivist and individualist political models, and a whole lot more. But where classroom discipline is concerned, I can only repeat that a punitive approach seems to benefit neither the individual nor the group—and the negative effects on both are multiplied over the long run. The rest of the class may feel a twinge of relief when an obnoxious kid is booted out or otherwise made to suffer. But a punitive climate isn’t in anyone’s interest. As I argued earlier, it strains the fabric of the relationship between kids and adults, as well as among kids.

At the end of your post, you rattled off a dizzying array of questions—about having teachers as well as students participate in contests that were set up by others, about whether to create our own competitive activities (including sports), about the use of grades, honors, and rubrics, about the very idea of rewarding talent or effort. Whew! I think I’ll just close my eyes, spin around, and point randomly to a spot in the lower half of your blog.

What do you know? I landed on competition.

There’s a lot to be said about why everyone, even the winner, ends up losing in a race to win. When things are set up so that one person can succeed only if others fail, the effects are pernicious in multiple ways: how the participants feel about themselves, about what they’re doing (the learning or, for adults, the work), and about one another. When the goal is not to do well but to win—two entirely different objectives— then you naturally start to see everyone around you as potential obstacles to your own success.

Does that mean that a school should refuse to participate in district-sponsored awards? I don’t know. Maybe that dilemma offers a teachable moment, an opportunity to generate discussion with faculty and with kids about the effects of competition, a chance to think critically together about our culture’s obsession with being No. 1. It’s a chance to review the available research, to consider cooperative games as an alternative to sports, to explore the pathology of those exercises in humiliation that comprise reality TV, to ask challenging questions about everything from our personal relationships to our economic system. Maybe as a school we try to figure out a way to stick together rather than participate in a ritual where people with power propose to single out only one of us for recognition. Maybe we create a way to celebrate everyone’s success as an alternative to awards assemblies. Maybe these efforts are even threaded into the curriculum, providing an example of interdisciplinary project-based learning.

And maybe—just maybe—the effect of such an investigation is that we become more radical, rather than more traditional, over time.

I wrote a book about the destructive effects of competition long before I met you, Deb. But you’ve helped me to understand some of the truly disturbing ways that an adversarial model plays out in education. I’m not talking about norm-referenced testing (where the operative question isn’t “How well are our students doing?” but “Who’s beating whom?”) or Race to the Top (where the politicians with a corporate “reform” agenda win and democratic public education loses), but about some of your startling insights such as:

* how the very idea of “high standards” has come to mean “standards that most kids will never be able to meet;"

* how the focus on getting into college destroys the potentially liberating aspects of education, replacing any feeling of solidarity with a frantic exercise in “climbing over others;"

* how some teachers, such as those in the arts, seem mostly to take pride in the occasional Kid Who Made Good (by becoming famous after graduation), as if the teacher’s job was to sift through hundreds of students to find a winner rather than trying to enrich everyone’s experience;

* how a school is ideally a collaborative community in which teachers come to think like principals (as well as the other way around), accepting responsibility for all the students in the school rather than feeling proprietary about those in their own classroom.

I’ve found all of these insights of yours, which I hope I haven’t misrepresented here, important and refreshing. The last one in particular gave me that “Huh. I never thought about it quite that way before” feeling that I often get from reading or listening to you, Debbie. What better describes a cooperative approach than a whole staff working together for every kid in the school? And that’s exactly what’s put at risk by contests and awards! The more we value cooperation in any setting, the more I believe we should work to eliminate practices and policies that set us against one another.

To take a stand against competition, however, is not to argue against conflict, per se. It doesn’t mean that you and I (or students exploring an issue, or teachers setting school policy) ought to refrain from arguing. It’s a false dichotomy to say that either we have to reach agreement, which often turns out to be premature and superficial, or else we have to try to whup each other in a debate.

As David and Roger Johnson, along with other researchers, have pointed out, there’s a third approach that makes much more sense. Call it cooperative conflict. Or constructive controversy. Or, in the Johnsons’ poetic language, “friendly excursions into disequilibrium.” We argue; we disagree, but we do so in the context of caring about one another, which is altogether different from scoring points in a debate. The point is to learn, not to win. (Winning is death to learning.)

Hey, I just noticed a parallel to another topic we’ve discussed. Disagreement doesn’t have to be framed as concurrence-seeking in order to be constructive and civil, on the one hand, and it doesn’t have to take the form of debate in order to be spirited and intellectually productive, on the other hand. That’s analogous to a point I tried to make during our joint session at the Coalition of Essential Schools’ fall forum: The purpose of learning is neither play-like enjoyment (although it can be deeply satisfying) nor work-like completion of products (although it can involve intense effort and concentration). It’s not necessary to work in order to experience challenge or excellence, and it’s not necessary to play in order to experience pleasure.

But that’s a topic for another’s day friendly excursion ...


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