Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Healthy Competition

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter the other day with a few people about competition and what its role, if any, should be in the classroom. I raised the question initially because in general, I shy away from competition as it tends to reward the types of behaviors that I don't think are conducive to deep, meaningful work and a supportive class environment. It tends to raise the level of adrenaline in the room, make kids impatient with themselves and each other, and reward those who are fast and pushy while relegating those who are more thoughtful or shy to a lower tier of perceived competence. There is usually a single or only a few winners and lots of losers in a competition, no matter how fun, and the focus invariably shifts away from learning and towards winning. But. Many students love it. My experience has been that they seem to be preferred more by boys, but many students of both genders ask for competitions and enjoy them immensely. They're a quick and easy way to add some excitement to an otherwise dry class period when we need to practice a problem type or review a topic. I use "team challenge" types of competitions where groups of 3 or 4 students complete problems together. Often, there's a way to earn bonus points either by making a basket into the recycling bin ("trashketball") or by throwing a sticky ball at a bull's eye target.

My question on Twitter was whether it was possible to do competition well or if it was always going to be problematic in reinforcing class norms that I'm trying to avoid. A few comments that helped me frame my thinking from @cheesemonkeysf:

I loved this reframing of competition as something that is done for the group and by the group to encourage collaboration and helpfulness, not winning at the cost of someone else losing. I also remembered some of the class vs goal competitions that I used to do, but haven't done much of this year. Those could be a great way to channel some of the restless energy that a class of 7th graders has in spades at the end of a school day. I still need to think about how to structure the activity so that helpfulness and cheering on are rewarded. There is definitely potential if the goal is to "get everybody over the goal line" for status issues to come up if a student is perceived to be holding back the group and preventing them from winning. Something like a participation quiz a la @samjshah might be helpful here to bring the focus back to cooperative behaviors.

I also thought the following strategy from @j_lanier was a great one:
Containing the competition to a segment of the class might allow those kids who clamor and benefit from competition to engage in it to their little hearts' content while allowing those who need a more relaxed approach to have it their way too. 

Justin's final remark really hit home for me:

I think that I've been in the giving in reluctantly camp for a while, but recognizing students' natural interest in competition and channeling it in healthy ways is probably a better place to be. I'd love to hear about how you're using (or not using) competition in your class and any issues surrounding this topic that have come up for you.


  1. I would love to hear a specific story about kids: who feels engaged, how do you see it playing out in other parts of your class work, etc. I think part of what is complicated for me and the monkey about competition is the potential for negative status issues to infiltrate the classroom and get in the way of other kinds of activities.

    I am really interested to see how this plays out in your classroom. If you figure out a way to, as Justin says, harness their natural inclination for competition without negative consequences, I will want to learn about it from you!

  2. Contest: Who can be the least competitive?