Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Competition doesn't have to be a four letter word...

flickr CC image via stockicide

Competition isn't inherently bad. Whether a competitive learning environment is perceived as positive or negative depends entirely on the context within which we define competition.

When it comes to competition, once again, educators are polarizing an issue unnecessarily. It's a black and white issue for us- either we endorse competitive learning environments as positive teaching and learning, or we denounce them as a negative influence. I think it's when we impose a norm-referenced competitive learning environment on kids in school that it becomes potentially negative and perhaps debilitating.

There has to be a middle ground.

Are we not competitive by nature? Just watch a group of kids playing sometime... inevitably, and without provocation, they will engage in some sort of competition... seeing how long they can hold there breath under water, seeing how high they can climb on the monkey bars or just having a friendly running race... kids like competition when it's designed by them. Why not nurture this tendency in school? Perhaps we need to let kids be the authors of their own learning to a degree. Perhaps this is the middle ground we should target.

Let's use a standards-based learning (SBL) environment as our positive example. In as SBL environment, every student is judged against a set of learning standards that are consistent and measurable. When these standards are differentiated into levels of achievement, they also allow for a considerable amount of assessment flexibility. SBL environments permit us to get away from variations of a Gaussian Curve analysis of any particular group of students- arguably an unfair and statistically-biased form of summative assessment, and instead focus on the individual achievement of each student. In this context, each student is competing against his own prior levels of achievement, working to improve his knowledge and skill-set... taking on the responsibility for directing his own learning. In my mind there's nothing wrong with this form of competition.

Education, like golf, is ultimately an individually driven effort... to be successful at golf we need only to worry about our own score... to be successful at learning we need only to be concerned with our own progress.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you on many levels. Often it's not just what we do but how we help students gain meaning from what we do and what they in turn do.
    For example, if we want kids to believe that they have unique strengths, then we must help them find that evidence so that they can believe it for themselves. I have been in environments where test scores were posted on cafeteria walls; certainly not the best "growth mindset" place for kids to be. They were labeled by peers and adults by scores on their last "benchmark" tests in language arts and math. I wrote about this practice here: http://speakingupforthekids.blogspot.com/2010/01/when-goals-and-practices-collide-part.html
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your viewpoint. My head is spinning on this topic so forgive the ramble.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I completely agree with SBL. It gives every student a learning goal and a direction for their learning. It gives parents a greater sense of how they can help their child and allows them to be a more active part of their child's education.

    Letter grades, as they are currently used, are a distraction to learning. The changing of letter grades to ensure that there are enough or because there are not enough, makes the assessment seriously flawed.

    SBL also informs the educator about the needs of the individual and the class as a whole. If you are bell curving, it either says something about the assessment or the learning that has occured.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Joan, Remi... thanks for commenting. I find that we confuse "competition" with Bell Curve analysis of test scores in education. As a result we've vilified the concept of competition by associating it with something obviously bad to most of us (high stakes testing with norm-referenced assessments.)

    Competition can be a very healthy element of growth and learning; it's all about the context within which we define it.

    Cheers,
    Sean

    ReplyDelete
  4. "In as SBL environment, every student is judged against a set of learning standards that are consistent and measurable." Ideally, you are right. This is how NCLB was "sold" to get all children at grade level by 2014. Standards are much more easily manipulated than children. Standards-based reporting and measurement have also taken this power out of the hands of teachers/students and placed it into the hands of powerful corporations. While I used to be an advocate of standards, I now see them in a very different light.

    http://whathappenedtomygradebook.blogspot.com/2011/10/audacity-of-learning-in-edreform-fixing.html

    ReplyDelete

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