A Fresh Look At Schooling: The Role Of Competition (Part 1 of 3)


By: James P. Krehbiel

Most children, assuming they are not socially anxious, enjoy kindergarten. They tend to enjoy it because kindergarten provides kids with a role-oriented experience. The focus, for the most part, is on making children feel good about learning by providing them with a variety of creative activities. The teacher's relationship with students tends to be very affirming and validating which fosters increased motivation. Students are rarely compared with their peers over the issue of performance. Similarly, kindergarteners do not typically feel under the microscope of teacher evaluation. If a student's progress is benchmarked at all, it is generally accomplished through anecdotal comments directed to the parents. With some teachers permitting their students to have naps and snacks, all is well with the little ones and their love of learning.

Then first grade arrives. A new day has dawned. The experience of schooling now becomes goal-oriented in nature for our students. The underlying assumption of schooling dramatically shifts in a new and confusing direction for first graders. The new process may be characterized with the teacher implying the following message to her students. All right kids, kindergarten is over. Now it is time to buckle down, and get serious about your studies. I will let you know how you are doing by grading you and will inform your parents if you are failing or not making progress. You will also get work to take home (called homework). Make sure that it is completed, returned to school and turned in to me. Not completing your homework will affect you grade. Your work and grades will be posted so that you can see how you are doing in comparison to your classmates. Any questions students?" Sigh!

I believe that his fundamental shift in thinking toward an exclusively goal-oriented approach to schooling is responsible for an unnecessary diet of academic competition which plagues our students. Early on in a student's school career, many schools perpetuate continuous competition as politicians and parents keep up the call for what they believe are the virtues of performance enhancing pressure. Many parents want to believe that their child is more gifted that the next kid and pressure the schools to stay goal-driven. Parents may demand that their school create academic programs and activities that serve to separate the academic "sheep from the goats."

Schools, in and effort to please everyone, set up programs that perpetuate competition and are exclusionary in vision. Competition in schools is used as a method to motivate students. However, competition is not a very effective academic motivator, particularly for young students at the elementary and middle school level; if it was, we would have more students experiencing success.

Prior to high school, students should be encouraged to learn interactively as a community of learners. Competition should be minimized for pragmatic reasons — it doesn't help most students. On the contrary, it creates a learning environment which fosters frustration, a lack of motivation, failure and shame. The only students who might benefit from extensive competition are high functioning students, but they may miss out on the benefits of working cooperatively in small learning groups. The most important ingredient in being successful in the work force is not how smart you are, but how adaptive you are in working well with others.

It would be wonderful if school systems who claim to embrace the middle school concept actually applied it in dealing with students. The middle school concept was an outgrowth of a national committee report presented by the Carnegie Foundation called "A Nation at Risk." The study called for changes in middle level education such as intimate teaching teams, cooperative learning strategies, the use of evaluation as a positive motivator, and emotional support from all school personnel for students. However, most middle schools that I am aware of are middle schools in name only.

Here is a familiar story. A middle school student is highly distraught, and therefore the parents make an appointment for the child to see me for counseling. The parents are concerned because the child has received a form letter from the school indicating that she fails to make the cut for the cheerleading team. Apparently, she is one of three girls that receive a letter that excludes her from the team. She is so devastated by her failure to make the cheerleading team that she calls home from school weeping and the mother feels a need to bring her home from school because she is so upset. She cries throughout the entire day and evening and can't sleep that night.

The next day I see the girl on an emergency basis, but she is still sobbing and distraught. Although I deal with grief and loss, nothing I can say will resonate with this young lady. To make matters worse, she tells me that several of her teachers served as the cheerleading tryout evaluators. Giving her a pep talk about handling failure seems disingenuous. Therefore, I merely try to soothe her pain and express my dismay at the school. I tell her father that the school has let her down and that there is no reason why a middle school team should not have been able to accommodate fifteen kids on the team.

Time may heal this wound, but it will never be forgotten. It goes to the heart of the damage that unnecessary competition can do to our impressionable, sensitive children. Our teachers need to question aspects of schooling that do not reinforce quality education, promote integrity, create a community of learners, and provide need-satisfying support for students in the process of schooling.

In Part 2, I focus on the role of homework in education.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC is an author, educator, freelance writer and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at krehbielcounseling.com.

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