About this time of year it’s prize-giving at schools; either a school has just had this special event or will hold it soon. The occasion is filled with mixed feelings. For the winners and their families, it’s a time of high-fives and hugs. What about the others … the also-rans and those who were pipped at the winning post? How do they feel? Are there tinges of envy and jealousy, or is there a spirit of true goodwill for the achievements of the winners? You can guess the answer!
Prize-givings elicit enormous debate about competition versus co-operation. In your own classroom, what do you prefer? Do you encourage a spirit of competition among the children, or do you focus on co-operation?
Those in favour of pushing the competitive viewpoint argue that competition prepares children for the real world. The winner takes all … the loser gets nothing. Competition pushes us to try harder. If the All Blacks are the best rugby team in the world (bar the rarest 40-29 defeat to Ireland), it’s because the team has been focused, has persevered and given of their very best. Healthy competition can add excitement and enthusiasm to whatever one is doing.
The 2016 American Presidential Elections was a brutal and bitter clash between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Competition can be very individualistic and result in much negativity. It can create a “dog eats dog” frame of mind. The only thing that matters is trying to be Top Dog. One person’s humiliating defeat is a victor’s gloating pride.
Cheating often happens in a competitive environment. Think of the cheating in a classroom when a teacher isn’t vigilant, and the copying by one child of another’s work.
The co-operative spirit is part of adult life; we need it every day. In the co-operative classroom the children learn to work together. They learn to get along with others, learn what the cultures of others are about, and their different views. Research shows that children learn more from each other in such a classroom. Children help each other “get up to speed” with their work; classmates help those who are struggling.
Yet there are downsides to the totally co-operative classroom. It’s more difficult for the teacher to accurately assess the performance of every child, and then there’ll be the hard-working child who’s frustrated that her personal performance is unrecognised. There are also problems around group project work. Most groups have a range of children from the “high flyers” on the one hand, who show commitment and determination, while on the other are the “free riders” who do virtually nothing but look forward to getting the same scores as the hard workers. When it comes to assessment, why should the slackers be equally rewarded?
I believe that both competition and co-operation belong in the quality classroom. Most teachers want a happy, hard-working group. When a child is co-operative towards others, empathy and sharing are encouraged. Everyone helps each other. No one is made to feel inadequate or stupid, and everyone’s a success story.
Yet most of us like challenges. They improve our performance; they bring out the best in us. Competition can be good. Ask the children to notice what others in the class are capable of doing. Ask them to answer this simple question: am I able to do the same, or even better?
More important though than competing with others, is to compete with oneself. The child needs to know his present level of achievement. It’s unfair and even cruel for a child who, for example, is struggling in a subject to have to compete against the top achiever. Rather, she should ask and answer this sort of question: what am I — without having to compare myself with anyone else in the class — able to achieve if I give of my very best?
Is a classroom competitive spirit the best? No, not on its own. Classrooms need the co-operative spirit too. Competition and co-operation are used skilfully by the best teachers. As teachers, we need to work at finding that balance between the two. When we find it, we shall love our teaching and the learners will love it too.
Dr Richard Hayward is a former principal of two Gauteng public schools. Free downloads of his Quality Education News issued by the South African Quality Institute are available. Please go to www.saqi.co.za (click “Quality Education” on the home page) or www.MySchool.co.za (click “Beneficiaries”).