The Worst Words in Education

Golden Gloves Prelim Bouts
Image by kate.gardiner via Flickr

“Life is full of harsh realities. And I want as a parent to give my kids the ability to navigate thru life.”

Those are the worst words in education.

They are the worst words because they are used to justify cruelty to children.

What kind of cruelty?

Competition, for one.

I’m not talking about football games, elections for class president or the selection of the prom king and queen.

I’m talking about academic competition, things like spelling bees and other class-wide contests.

This afternoon, before the NFL playoffs, I watched a three-part video in which Rick Lavoie discusses why competitive learning is so problematic, and why it is a bad way to motivate students.

According to Lavoie, there is a major difference between the competition in school and competition elsewhere.  In school we are forced to compete. In life we only compete when we want to.

“The only person motivated by competition is the person who thinks there’s a chance of winning.”

“We do our best work when we compete against ourselves, not against others.”

I learned this in fifth grade.

I loved fifth grade. I’ve written about my experiences in Mrs. Lorenz’s class before.

In a response to that post my friend Mary Beth Hertz commented:  “It seems a common thread is that we remember the teachers who took their time to find out who we were and to treat us as people. We also seem to remember the teachers who were a little out of the box.”

Mrs. Lorenz wasn’t always out of the box and one event in her class came back to me as I watched the LaVoie video.

We had been studying simple machines in science. It was the third of fourth unit of our science study and Mrs. Lorenz decided that instead of giving us a midterm exam, she would have a science bee.

Example of one of the 5 simple machines: Screw

Image via Wikipedia

We were divided into two teams according to some criteria or another. Each team had a mix of students from the different levels of ability in the classroom. Whenever a team member answered a question the questioner could challenge the answer. When an answer was challenged, Mrs. Lorenz would render judgment. An incorrect answer would get the answering student eliminated. Failing to challenge an incorrect answer would get both students eliminated. A correct answer would allow the students to remain in the game and the answerer would get to ask a question of the next member of the opposite team.

It sounds very complicated, but we all understood how it worked. We flipped a coin to see which team would get to ask the first question.

The game progressed and each team lost a few players in the first round, and more in the second and third passes through the remaining students. It came down to two students, one of the girls in the class and me.

I asked her a question and she got it right. She asked me to name the five simple machines. I named six and she was smiling broadly as she challenged my answer. If I were wrong she would win. If I were correct, I would win.

Mrs. Lorenz took her time making her judgment. The tension in the room grew.

She looked at me then turned to the girl and told her I was correct.

My teammates were excitedly congratulating me but I was watching the girl’s face and it looked like she was going to cry. Having me lose meant that much to her. I was very upset by the whole situation but did not really understand why.

I have a better idea now. What happened that day more than 45 years ago was very cruel to that girl, to our teammates and to me.

That girl was very smart, she was probably a better student than I was, but she needed to defeat me to feel that way. Because she didn’t, she was ready to cry.

Her teammates felt like losers and my teammates felt like winners. Neither feeling was accurate.

We moved the next year and I have no idea what happened to that girl, but I never took part in a class competition again. If I were forced to, I’d deliberately lose in the first round.

My being smart or not, my achieving or not, has nothing to do with anyone else’s work, only my own.  Whether I choose to compete or not has nothing to do with anyone else. It is my decision and no one can make me compete if I don’t want to.

It seems the realities of school are considerably harsher than those of life. That is cruelty. If we really want school to prepare children for the realities of life, competition should operate the same way in school and out.

Let’s end mandatory competition.

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15 Responses to The Worst Words in Education

  1. Carl says:

    Excellent! Competition not only is bad for students, but for teachers also.

  2. AyaAcademy says:

    This is post is giving me some food for thought. The thrill of competition is only thrilling for those who believe they have a shot at winning. I never thought about the kid that laready feels a sense of defeat. I should have cconsidering I was that kid in PE – I HATED dodge ball! Same premise – forced participation in an activity rigged so that only some people win.

    I like your point that competing against ourselves reap better rewards. How can we move toward that?

  3. Vera Rulon says:

    Thanks Deven. Well said.

  4. Thoughtful post as usual. Thank you Deven. But I have to disagree about competition. My thought is that kids have to learn to lose. The fact is that losing and being able to take that in stride may be the most important thing they learn.

    Recently we’ve been having a conversation at #ecosys on twitter as Resilience as a reasonable way to think about our goals in education.

    To be clear, I agree that academics as a focus for competition makes things worse rather than better. Academics is only one very small part of life. It helps to explain the notion that there is “school” and there is “real life.” Not so surprising that kids turn off from school.

    In any case, I found a post this week by @GraingerEd on twitter about Resilience and the idea of EduCare as a good framework for thinking about what we’re doing. I would be very interested in any reactions, you and your readers might have.

    The Title is “EduKare”- A new paradigm for struggling urban schools… The link:

    • Deven Black says:

      I am not against competition unless it is mandated. While I agree that children (and many adults) need to accept defeat with grace, they need not be forced to do it in a classroom activity they had no chance to opt out of. The world provides plenty of opportunities to lose at one’s leisure or in other optionally joined activities. Forcing children into situations in which they will lose is not educationally sound and borders on child abuse.

      • You’re spot on with “forcing children into situations in which they will lose is not educationally sound and borders on child abuse.”

        It’s precisely what we are doing to our children with high stakes testing and grading that only exacerbates the problem.

        I just think it’s important in the frame of Resilience as a goal that learning to overcome failure is something we have to teach our kids.

        The reality is that in Life some win, some lose. In the best of worlds, winning or losing should not affect self image and ability to overcome adversity.

        Just trying to say you raise a very important issue, but framing it as competition per se as the problem might not be the best way to solve it.

  5. Rick Lavoie says:

    Deven…..I was very impressed by this blog entry and am delighted that my work had an impact on you. The fact that your memory of the Science incident is still so clear in your mind speaks to the tremendous, lasting effect that highly charged competitive activities can have on kids.

    I am sure that Mrs Lorenz was a compassionate and well-intentioned teacher, but — like so many educational professionals — is unaware that she created a classroom environment wherein students WANTED THEIR CLASSMATES TO DO POORLY because it was IN THEIR INTEREST that their classmates fail.

    If you have ever worked in a store, factory or company wherein one department wanted another department to fail, you know what a destructive and unproductive work environment that can be…and a lousy, unmotivating place to go to work !!

    Well-written piece, Deven. Well done !!

    Rick Lavoie

    • Deven Black says:

      Thank you very much. You, too, have made quite an impression on me. I remember seeing your Fat City video during my grad school special ed classes and finally understanding what it was like to have a learning disability.

  6. Another quote I detest is “suck it up, buttercup,” especially when we’re talking about 6, 7, and even 8 year olds. Teachers and parents sometimes feel that they must prepare children for the “harsh realities of the outside world” when we should be helping them learn about the world. These statements are a cop out in my opinion as it gives adults an easy (and clever) way to abscond their teaching responsibilities when dealing with children.

  7. Linda Russell says:

    A very interesting conversation. I never understood why some teachers felt it necessary to fabricate student competitions and experiences with failure. Lessons in failing, perseverance and self-evaluation are built-in to the learning process, as are lessons of cooperation, encouragement and pride.

    • Deven Black says:

      In the learning process only if the teacher teaches them. Same with the lessons of life, sometimes we need a mentor to help us realize our learning.

  8. Edna Lee says:

    “The only person motivated by competition is the person who thinks there’s a chance of winning.”

    Great quote. Very few of my students feel they have a chance at winning in most academic endeavors. That’s why my teaching partners and I shifted our focus from being the best students they can be to being the best people they can be. We foster opportunities to volunteer in the community, give to others, fundraise for charities, tutor younger students, and improve life at our school. Oddly enough, their grades improve along the way!

    • Deven Black says:

      It is very important for us all to remember that while we strive to create life-long learners, the goal of education is not to raise better students but to raise better grown-ups. If we only expose children to schoolwork that is all they will be capable of, but if we expose them to lifework they’ll grow up capable of living productive lives.

      For anyone who hasn’t already done so, I strongly urge reading Edna Lee’s blog for a realistic, loving yet sardonic look at elementary school life. You’ll laugh until you cry and cry until you laugh.

  9. Frederika says:

    Thank you for this very provocative and important post. I teach 6th grade in a middle school and too many of our kids already see themselves and believe themselves to be losers or failures when it comes to school. I certainly would not mean to or want to encourage this.

    I have come to detest behavior motivators like reward parties for some of the same reasons. In my school the same kids get the reward and the same 20-30 kids are forced to go to a detention instead of watching the movie, having the card party, or attending the dance. It is not motivating the misbehavers to try harder or behave better. It just reinforces the message that you are naughty, trouble, undeserving.

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