Competition: Worth the Risk?
I recently had a conversation with an educator about the value of competition in the classroom. It caused me to reflect—Is there a place for competition within our classroom structure? The teacher assured me, “Kids love competition. It creates so much energy and engagement in my classroom!” I’m not so sure I agree.
I grew up in an era of posting students name with stickers to indicate mastery of various skills (e.g., spelling words, multiplication facts). It never bothered me as a student. Can you guess why? I’m sure you predicted correctly. I always had a lot of stickers!
As reform has progressed in education, we have become more aware of the potentially negative impact competition has on students, especially those who struggle. As a result, many of these type of practices which personally identify student progress have been abandoned.
Nevertheless, competition remains in many classrooms in various forms (e.g., Jeopardy for class review, team points for completion of activities, number of books read). I suspect that competition will never go away. However, as Christian educators, we need to be cautious.
Before proceeding, I have to come clean. While I am not a fan of competition inside the classroom, I am a competitive person. Admittedly, I am too competitive at times. I grew up playing tennis and competed in middle school, high school, and college. No one had to teach me how to be competitive. It was in my blood!
This competitive streak was nurtured during my adult years when I served as a coach and middle school principal. You could always find me in the stands fist pumping and yelling at the top of my lungs! I would tell myself to relax, but to no avail. My competitive spirit only worsened when I became a mom of two athletic girls. I’m sure many parents can relate.
I’m telling you all of this to emphasize that there is a place in society for healthy competition. I’m just not sure it has a place in our classrooms. I decided to do some digging in my Bible. Does God’s Word have anything to say about competition? The verses I located mainly referenced the race of life, encouraging us to finish our race, work heartily for the Lord, and glorify God in all we do (Hebrews 12, Colossians 3, I Corinthians 10).
As I searched God’s Word I began to reflect on what I see when I witness competition in the classroom. I always see winners and losers. While some may argue this is real world, let’s look at the ramifications of competition for those children we teach.
· For Winners. Winning builds confidence. However, there is the potential for pride. Winners can think themselves “better” than others. In addition, the desire to help and support others to learn is sacrificed. Some students even fall into the trap of perfectionism which can yield lifelong consequences.
· For Losers. Losing can increase resolve and challenge children to work harder. However, losing—especially losing frequently—has the potential to cause a defeatist attitude or even downright anger.
Does the Bible have anything to say about these potential pitfalls?
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. Philippians 2:3-4
Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Proverbs 11:2
We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. Romans 15:1-2
Competition has the potential to foster some pretty negative thoughts and feelings. I have to ask, for what purpose? At what cost? Should we be engaging our students in activities that have the potential to create harm and possibly lead to sinful actions and attitudes? If our goal as educators is to ensure all students learn at high levels while we foster positive social emotional learning, how can we justify competition?
We all know the importance of academic achievement for future success, but as Christian educators we also want to create classroom environments where children treat each other with kindness, empathy, patience, and gentleness. We want to create learning experiences where children can practice self-control and learn how to encourage and praise their classmates.
I often talk about how we need to shine the LIGHT of Jesus in our schools by demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentles, faithfulness, and self-control). One way to do this is to seriously consider how we structure our classroom environments and learning activities. We can actually demonstrate our faith and our walk with Jesus by purposefully creating learning activities that require children to be cooperative, not competitive.
I can hear the argument now. “We need to prepare our children for the real world!” That is true, but the reality is most of us, including children, have plenty of opportunities to be competitive. Competition is everywhere. Does it have to be in our classrooms, too?
I would like to end with a true story to illustrate my point. Years ago as an administrator I was doing a walk-through in my building. I slipped into a classroom full of lively chatter and much activity. Students were sitting in teams around the room. Each team was represented by one standing student. The teacher asked a review question, and the standing student was supposed to answer for the team. If the answer was correct, the team received a point on the board. As I stood and watched students, this is what I observed.
· Disengagement. Some students had their heads down on their desks.
· Embarrassment. Several students answered incorrectly.
· Accusations. Some teams accused others of cheating.
· Cheating. Some teammates whispered answers to the standing student.
· Prideful celebration. Winning teams taunted their classmates.
A competitive activity meant to engage and excite students quickly disintegrated into mayhem where the traits of encouragement, support, and kindness were nowhere to be found.
While I have never been a fan of competition in the classroom, this recent conversation made me think more deeply about how the activities and lesson we teach reflect what we value. The time we have with our students is limited. Is competition worth the risk? I think not. Let’s create environments where all students thrive and leave the competition to others outside the classroom.