Is America’s Obsession with Competition Improving Learning Outcomes?

Two popular educational movements at the moment in the United States are Personalized Learning, and Growth Mindset. Personalized Learning is by far the most popular, although most interventions are not very personal. Who could deny, however, that meeting the needs of every student individually is a good thing? Special Education has always understood the importance, and has long-standing strategies to meet the specific needs of children with disabilities. I question, however, if school districts have a culture of learning that truly values students’ ideas, and provides them with opportunities to guide their own path. What I see most often are command and control environments, with adults making all of the decisions, controlling the environment, providing the content, and maybe providing students with some choices about how they demonstrating outcomes.

Growth Mindset is another popular idea in many schools today. The theory involves a learner’s beliefs about his/her intelligence. If the student believes their intelligence is not fixed, and it is possible for them to grow, learn, and improve with individual effort, it is believed the student will work harder, and ultimately achieve more. The opposing belief is that intelligence is fixed, so no amount of effort is going to change that. One would think the belief in a fixed mindset would be rare in education circles, but one can see clues everywhere that reveal the opposite. Many students, for example, say they are terrible at math and could never achieve at the levels of the “smart kids.”

The question I have is

“If, as an educator, you believe that growth mindset and personalization are important for the development of your students, why are you promoting and reinforcing the opposite through your actions?”

Let me provide a quick example from a recent personal experience. Those of you who have read my other articles know that I use my children as examples in my writing. We live within the public school boundaries of one of the largest school districts in our state that has received numerous accolades for the education they provide. My intent is not to single them out, but to use them as a real world example of what I see and hear in schools everywhere. I believe the experience I will share here also falls into this category.

Last week I attended my younger daughter’s (Sophia) Honors Night. Students who were going to be honored (about 1/3 of the students in her grade) were sent an invitation, but without an indication of the award they would receive. As the day approached students were given a bunch of directives, and were told that if they didn’t follow them they would not be allowed to participate in the ceremony (e.g., what they could and could not wear, where they had to be at what time, behavior standards during the ceremony, etc.). It reminded me of the orientation we attended when Sophia was transitioning from elementary school to junior high. The principal spoke for 5 minutes about how they care about the growth and success of every child, and then the assistant principal explained the rules and consequences of breaking the rules for an hour and a half. I was surprised then that they didn’t seem to understand that even though they talk about personalization and growth mindset, their actions are all about controlling student behaviors.

So we arrived at honors night, on time and appropriately dressed, and the ceremony began. The principal welcomed everyone and told us how excited she was that there were so many hardworking students in the school that were doing so well. There were about 150 students in attendance from a class of about 600. She also explained that each department head would give an award, one student would receive the principal’s award, and then students would receive their other academic achievement awards for grade point average and high achievement on the state standardized test.

When the principal finished her remarks she called the first department head to the podium. As this teacher began describing the characteristics of the student who would win the award I noticed something interesting. More than half of the students became very attentive. Almost in unison they turned their heads toward the stage, sat up in their chairs and leaned forward. Then, as the name of the winning student was read, the students immediately slumped back into their chairs. At first I thought I might have been seeing things, but as the students progressed through these same synchronized body movements during the announcement of each new award, it really looked quite astounding. It reminded me of a body breathing, starting with a steady expansion of the lung and chest as one breaths in, and then the collapse of the chest and lung as one breaths out. Because there were 9 or 10 of these awards the pattern could be clearly established.

I started wondering what was going on in the students’ heads. I also wondered how the students were picked for the awards. Everybody invited was a good student, so what were the differentiators? We were provided a few clues during the teacher comments. Two teachers mentioned that the recipient was a good rule follower. Several teachers provided anecdotes of their personal relationship with the student, and how much they liked them. I also noticed that the same four students won all of the awards.

I asked Sophia on the way home what she thought of the ceremony, and we wound up having one of those spirited conversations I cherish so much. She started in a somewhat snotty tone by saying, “Did the goth girl, who is an A student and has amazing drawing skills win the fine arts award? No. Did the dorky kid that seems to know everything about history, who annoys the teacher with his questions, and is always getting into arguments with him win the social studies award? No. Did the math student that shows the teacher a different way to solve a problem every day, and corrects the teacher when he is wrong win the math award? No. The whole thing was stupid. The same goodie-goodies get to do everything and win everything.”

I mentioned to her about my observation of the students, and she said, “When the Spanish teacher started reading the characteristics of her winner I thought she was talking about me.” I agreed that I thought it sounded exactly like her. “I was really bummed when I didn’t get it, and I sort of feel bad about myself right now, like I’m not doing something right. I try super hard to give them what they want, but I think too much.”

That comment stabbed me straight through the heart – a 4.0 student feeling like she is doing something wrong and THINKING TOO MUCH!

I have been reflecting on the role of student motivation quite a bit lately. It has always been a piece of the puzzle in my work from the beginning of my education career, but I haven’t spent a tremendous amount of time investigating the research. I’m now working with a colleague on a theory of change that includes what we have learned about human motivation as one of the fundamental pillars. We believe we have found the core elements and processes that could lead to dramatic improvements in learning and student academic achievement, but human systems are complicated and are resistant to change. Let’s examine just one small aspect of the motivation pillar, as it relates to the Honors Night experience.

Professors from Cambridge University recently published their findings of a two year study of the effects of competition on students. The researchers believe that competition can have damaging effects on children’s learning, especially in the primary years. The study revealed that rewards for good grades have a negative impact, and suggest that teachers should praise “efforts” rather than success. I’m not sure I like the terminology used, but what the researchers are driving at is the idea that the outcome is only a small piece of the learning process, and if we reward good use of the process, and sustaining efforts to find answers through that process, students will have a much deeper learning experience than just trying to reproduce a fixed outcome. Schools may say they believe a growth mindset is important, but if they contradict themselves through their actions – like the extrinsic rewards system used almost everywhere – what will the children believe? This is so important because children who believe that their intelligence is fixed are less likely to make an effort to learn, whereas those who believe that their intelligence can grow continue to try, and try harder. The Cambridge researchers specifically found that “offering rewards on a competitive basis” affected pupils’ perception of their classmates. Shy children often became “increasingly quiet or subdued” or were reduced to “passive scribes of a dominant child’s ideas.” (i).

The competitive rewarding system ultimately creates winners and losers. In the case of Sophia’s Honors Night, there was 1 winner and 150 losers 9 or 10 times in a row. I think the school might think that the competition motivates students to work harder and achieve a higher standard. This may be true for a few students who crave external validation, but the vast majority of students who were in the room that night are intrinsically motivated, and wonderful students. Since this is the case, what is the point of turning 145 of them into losers, and 5 of them into winners?

School counselors have to deal with this absurdity all the time: students whose dreams have been crushed; the non-conformist who is bullied by students, and not respected by his teachers; those who are humiliated by their lack of achievement at peer levels; the child that can never live up to his/her parent’s academic expectations; and dozens of students who are in trouble because they have given up on the system because they are tired of being told what to do, or they will never be able to “win.”

In a 2003 study (ii), researchers at Chinese University of Hong Kong found that competition can even have a negative effect on high achieving students. When student motivation was analyzed through the lens of loss aversion (the desire to avoid loss) and the endowment effect (the tendency to value our own goods more than the same goods owned by others), they saw the potential for many successful students to experience a significant negative effect on their perceived high self-worth. In order to protect the perception people have of them, and they have of themselves, they may reduce their effort in order to “win by not losing.” By not putting in the effort they can preserve the perception that they are smart, but didn’t achieve simply because they didn’t put in the effort.

In another Chinese study researchers investigated the effects of competition on learning motivation by comparing competitive classroom settings with non-competitive ones. Students in competitive conditions did perform better, but only on easy, or low level tasks. The downside of the minimal success, however, was that because students were so performance-oriented, they were more likely to sacrifice learning opportunities for better grades. We can see the same thing happen in American high schools when students take a regular class rather than an honors class in order to ensure they will preserve their grade point average. The Chinese students were also prone to having more negative self-evaluations after failure, which leads us back to the other findings around growth mindset. Another finding from the study is that competition – in particular, a competitive grading system – suggested that above-average students might be motivated by this type of competition, whereas below-average students might be discouraged by such a system.

So what does this all mean? Competition is not inherently bad for learning. I just don’t think most educators have thought through the types of competition they create, and the effects it can have on all of their students. Being forced into a competitive system where you have no chance of winning is demoralizing. Being in a competition where you don’t know the criteria by which a winner is chosen is frustrating and feels pointless. To be effective in the learning process, competition needs to be mindful of the values the learning environment is looking to promote, and should focus on improving self-performance, rather than pitting students against each other in a system that creates very few winners and too many losers. After all, human beings have evolved and continue to survive not because of competition, but rather because of a balance between competition and collaboration. Some believe the latter will actually be more essential for survival in the future.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

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