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Classroom practice - Change the rules and everyone's a winner

Competition needn't be a zero-sum game: a fresh approach can make it a positive experience for all students - even if they lose

Competition needn't be a zero-sum game: a fresh approach can make it a positive experience for all students - even if they lose

A friend of mine has a four-year-old grandson who started school this term. Within three days of setting foot in the classroom, he was handing out star stickers to adults at home and announcing who had "won" and, with a commiserating face and a shrug, also informing the family which person had lost.

Competition in the classroom, as you can see, begins early. The education system pits us against our peers for many reasons: to boost achievement, control behaviour, ensure sporting success, even to give students a taste of "real life". The belief is that competition is innate in human nature, so what could be better to fuel student motivation?

But how rigorously do we interrogate this view? Competition can, after all, have a negative effect, demotivating some students and occasionally leading to bullying. Many employers also look not for individualistic, aggressive thinkers, but collaborative workers who aim for team, rather than individual, goals. Perhaps it is time we reassessed the role that competition plays in the classroom.

The first thing you discover when you look into the subject is that there is by no means general agreement that humans are innately competitive. For every scientist arguing that competitiveness is ingrained in human nature, there is another who will claim that the drive to cooperate is more powerful. While these two qualities are not mutually exclusive (people can be cooperative and compete with one another), clearly, it is not universally true that a competitive spirit resides in every human being. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that competition works for every student.

Studies have also found that the impact of competition is not a longing to reach the highest point of achievement possible, but rather a desire simply to outdo the closest ranking peer.

The paper "The relationship between income and subjective well-being: relative or absolute?", written by academics from the University of Illinois in the US, cites studies finding that human happiness often derives not from accumulating the maximum amount of wealth possible, but from being richer than immediate peers. So person A with pound;200 in the bank could be happier than person B with pound;2 million, provided that person A's friends are poorer than them, and person B's friends are richer.

Introducing competition in the classroom, then, may not lead to students achieving top grades, if the general level of attainment is low. Similarly, the highest-attaining students may only be pushed to the achievements they are capable of if the competition introduced is between students with similar capabilities.

The social effect of competition also needs to be considered. "There will always be `winners', and often they are set apart from their fellow students and can become victims of bullying, because the language used to applaud their efforts alienates others," says Ian Rivers, professor of human development and head of the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University, London. "Sometimes `losers' also become victims, because the language used when referring to them fails to acknowledge their meaningful contribution."

Of course, there is an argument to say that the above is simply a reality of life which education should prepare students for. This view holds little weight with some. In an article for the American School Board Journal in 2011, Alfie Kohn, a US author and education guru, said: "The logic here is that we have to prepare you for the bad things that are going to be done to you later . by doing them to you now. When articulated explicitly, that principle sounds exactly as ridiculous as it is."

Perhaps the strongest anti-competition argument, though, is that it can be demotivating for some students. Studies (including by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the creators of self-determination theory) have found that competition leads to students being motivated by external rewards and not an internal sense of achievement. When thinking is presented only in terms of winning or losing, the student can lose sight of how to learn and why they are learning.

Other studies (including Thomas Good and Jere Brophy's Looking in Classrooms) have found that students can also opt out of competition - and thus learning - if they "lose" too often.

There is, of course, a counter-argument to all this criticism. Many studies - and plenty of teacher testimonies - show that competition can work wonders for student motivation and achievement.

So should teachers be picking sides? A more productive approach would be to take the criticisms and use them to inform how and when competition is used in the classroom.

First of all, the potential negative impacts of bullying and demotivation should be given due consideration every time competition is used. Teachers could go further, though, and reimagine how competition is conducted. David Shields, associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St Louis, has done a lot of work on this through the non-profit organisation He and his colleagues pioneered something called "contesting theory", which centres on the idea that competitions should always be framed as a quest for excellence and cooperation, not as winning or losing.

We can translate Shields' theory to classroom competitions. First, the teacher has to ensure that the students care about the subject of the competition, so will consider learning content just as important as the "victory" or "loss". They can do this by motivating students in the usual ways - by emphasising the real-world applications of the subject matter, for example.

Second, the teacher should constantly encourage students to assess how they win. By couching the competition as a game, you can discuss with students whether their current strategy for winning may need tweaking, or whether there are possible areas they may wish to look at or new ways of thinking about the challenge.

In a normal competition, only one team wins, and it's possible that they are the only ones who learn anything from the experience. The other teams may be so focused on winning that they lose sight of what they are doing and how they are doing it, and then fail as a result. By focusing on the process, you can ensure that all groups and individuals are learning from the experience, whether or not they win or lose.

Third, the teacher should emphasise the collaborative nature of achievement. Using the analogy of a long-jump competition can be useful: the jumpers increase their performance in response to their opponents' achievements, not their failures. This should create respect and healthy rivalry whereby all teams and individuals recognise that a "victory" is a collaborative achievement, not something achieved in isolation by the victors.

Through methods such as these, teachers can try to overcome some of the negative aspects of competition in the classroom. Used alongside tactics such as being selective about when competitions are used and grouping competitors by ability, these approaches can foster competition that does not isolate or demotivate students but inspires them and leads them to greater achievement.

Clare Jarmy is head of philosophy and religious studies at Bedales School in Hampshire, England. She is the author of Arguments for God, published by Pushme Press


Teachers frequently use competition in lessons to motivate students and enhance learning, yet they rarely ask themselves why and how it is used.

Potential negative effects of competition include demotivation, bullying, students not reaching their full potential and isolation of uncompetitive students.

Teachers need to consider and avoid these negative effects by ensuring that competition is as much about engagement, collaboration and the learning process as winning and losing.


Ryan, RM and Deci, EL (1996) "When paradigms clash: comments on Cameron and Pierce's claim that rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation", Review of Educational Research, 661: 33-38

Good, TL and Brophy, JE (2008) Looking in Classrooms (Pearson)

Diener, E, Sandvik, E, Seidlitz, L, Diener, M (1992) "The relationship between income and well-being: relative or absolute?", Psychology Department, University of Illinois.

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