Cooperation vs. Competition

7 Apr

I know we live in cultures that value winning. In the modern world competition is infused to all areas of our lives: work, sports (of course), advertisements, entertainment, and relationships, even education – the sad example of wording an educational goal being the Race to the Top.
In competition there are always winners and losers. But can we really afford to have losers while making choices about education? Shouldn’t we try to educate every child?
While studying to become a teacher in Finland the answer was very clear: every student has a subjective right to learn and to be measured against her/his own previous achievements. Not those of someone else. Very fair, I think. Why should I compete with someone else, if our starting points were different?
We all have diverse skills and needs, because that’s what the life is made of – individuality. Students, while being the same age, have many more qualities that make them individual than those making them alike. Focusing on differences and supplementing those creates much better foundation for learning than highlighting superficial similarities and making ranking lists of those with competition.
The secret is to understand how equality doesn’t mean that resources and outcomes should be standardized. Equitable education simply means that every student gets the support and challenges what s/he needs – not what the other students need.

Competition usually revolves around power and/or control, no matter whether it is initiated by the students or the teacher. Often teacher is the one who has control, and sets up a competition, and then acts as a judge, deciding who is the best – a common classroom situation where points are given for various behaviours/performances/tasks/answers or taken away for misbehaviour. How does this build the learning motivation?

Another everyday example is when a student who feels powerful challenges others into competition, in hopes of gaining (more) power/admiration (we have all read Lord of the Flies, right?). I have seen many students compete about being faster, better, taller, smarter, more popular, etc. than their classmates in situations where cooperation would have been much easier and more beneficial choice.

Competition is about using power over others, in one way or other. Even while it is just an attempt to get the teacher’s attention with disruptive behavior! Unfortunately some students have learned the negative attention being the only option available for them. And as human beings we need that attention – we need others to acknowledge our existence. Finding competition in surprising situations happens when we start to pay close attention to reasons for doing certain things!

The two most harmful phenomena occurring while mixing competition and education are the externalization of the learning motivation and the distorted self-image of students. These are problematic for both losers and winners. Extrinsic learning motivation focuses on tangible rewards and makes students perform tasks instead of trying to deep learn the content, because only intrinsic learning motivation makes learning itself fun and rewarding. And for the self- image the educational psychology and research have long time been telling us how devastating comparing your personal attributes can be for the developing sense of self – and we still don’t get it??

The growth mindset (concept borrowed from Carol Dweck) is equally important for all students, because it builds grounds for life-long learning. Fostering cooperation and collegiality in the classroom enables students to grow and learn in their own pace and support each other in individual challenges.

Cooperation is about doing things together – not because we are told to do so, but because it makes sense. It is about helping each other and feeling compassion. So instead of competing who gets to go first for recess, the class could work together to make everything and everybody ready for it – this builds accountability too, when students help each other.

Cooperative learning is the diversity statement coming alive in the classroom. It is not about power or control, but about being equal, yet unique, and acknowledging the intrinsic value of each human being. It is supporting each other and understanding that everyone has different needs. Cooperation is about sharing ideas and learning constructively from each other. It is also about building better future together by setting mutual goals. Sounds like something we would want to see more in classrooms?

11 Responses to “Cooperation vs. Competition”

  1. patbuoncristiani April 7, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly that cooperation needs to come before competition in education. But I also wonder if competition isn’t somehow in our DNA. When I was a child playing with a ball against a brick wall I was constantly competing with myself to do cleverer and more complex throws and catches. Put two kids together and you will soon hear things like this, “I bet I can run faster/jump further/yell louder than you.” And so perhaps the trick is not to try and remove competition from education but to channel it. Competition with one’s self is obviously powerful and at the root of the growth mindset Carol Dweck talks about. We can also encourage healthy competition in the classroom, where the individual strengths of kids are recognized and where a person’s worth doesn’t hang on winning. The world outside the school is imbued with competition and we need to prepare our kids for that world. Thank you for raising this important issue Nina.

    • Nina April 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

      Thank you, Pat, for your very insightful comment! And yes, competition definitely is written into our genetic code. I just want to challenge us teachers to double-check our own assumptions and determine what kind of competition is healthy and supports the growth and learning. In my experience the classroom competition often too strongly links to those rewards that eventually become punishments (as seen in Alfie Kohn’s writings).

    • Eero Mäntylä April 7, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      I would like to compare competation in the school to sport lessons. If the sport education is too competative only about 20% or less exercise sport after school (adult).

      • Nina April 7, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

        Hi Eero, and thank you for the important reminder of sports appreciation! You are very correct: students whose self-confidence in sports gets crushed during school years seldom enjoy practicing sports (or fitness) after graduation – which of course is detrimental for the health of nations in the long run. There are several Finnish studies about the effects of school sports lessons. In University of Jyvaskyla there is also a research centre for health promotion: One of their focus areas is health promotion in schools, and especially research on the pedagogical development of school health education. Much appreciated!

  2. donamatthews April 8, 2013 at 4:29 am #

    Yes, of course we should ensure that every child learns as widely and well as he or she can do, and yes of course cooperation and collaboration are essential components of good learning environments. And yes, of course competition can be destructive when it’s overfocused on or handled badly.

    But–as Pat poins out–that doesn’t mean competition is harmful or bad in and of itself. In fact, I think competition is probably just as important to good learning experiences and outcomes as are collaboration and cooperation. So my response to this thoughtful (and obviously thought-provoking!) blog is that I’d say Cooperation AND Competition, not vs.

    Thank you for another thoughtful blog!

    • Nina April 8, 2013 at 10:18 am #

      Hi Dona, and thank you for your kind words and participation!
      One reason for me to post about cooperation vs. competition is to get other professional opinions about it. In media Finland has been viewed having very educationally cooperative culture. The Atlantic wrote in 2011: ” In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” … There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.” And my own thought is how competition might be beneficial for the winners, but how about the losers?
      Where do students with learned helplessness come from and does competition have anything to do with it ? Is competing with yourself actually competition, or something else? And how cultural/individual are these diverse views of competition we educators have?
      So many questions, never enough time – that’s the story of my life! 🙂

  3. dbpigtail April 11, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    I believe in what you’re saying. And I think I understand where you’re coming from–the type of competition you’re talking about. You’re not saying put an end to competition in general. There can be healthy competition like joining the track team and competing for example. But for learning I think there is indeed a lot of unhealthy competition. You hit the nail on the head with this statement [Extrinsic learning motivation focuses on tangible rewards and makes students perform tasks instead of trying to deep learn the content, because only intrinsic learning motivation makes learning itself fun and rewarding.] For me personally, I see too much focus on testing as the motivating factor, an extrinsic motivator, where children are forced to compare to one another, be labeled as winners or losers, with no eye on their individual qualities. Competition is unfair if all participants do not get the choose the ‘game’ they play. It becomes superficial learning and temporary learning, with all the fun and the love of the ‘game’ stripped away.

    • Nina April 11, 2013 at 9:19 am #

      Thank you! From a point of view of former child development consultant I can say that the most common mistake in parenting and education is the thought of long term goals having the same meaning for the child/student as it has for the parent/teacher. The point of view is just so different, and we improve education/parenting simply by acknowledging the difference and finding a common ground for mutual meaningfulness of learning. But, then again, that is what teaching is about: providing individual challenges in child sized chunks.

  4. Nidhi April 19, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    Parents complain “Cooperation is nice, but in the real world there is a lot of competition, and my child needs to learn to compete’ . How to make them understand the importance of cooperative learning??

    • Nina April 19, 2014 at 8:42 am #

      Hi Nidhi,

      Thanks for your comment! I think these parents have already bought into the competitive mindset, and it would be hard to fully convince them about the harmfulness of ongoing competition.

      I would just suggest they enroll their child to a competitive sport, but allow school and teachers (who ARE the learning and teaching professionals) to help their child learn about collaboration and team work. While the world and workplaces may be competitive, very few people actually can compete alone, but need their peers or teams in order to be successful. Thus the value of cooperative learning is truly a life-long benefit of being able to work well with others.



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