The Worst Words in Education

01/24/2011
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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