Competition, Collaboration, and Learning

Competition increases performance but hinders much learning.


One needs to look no further than the business or sports section of any newspaper to see the pervasiveness of competition. There is no doubt that competition increases performance. Athletic teams, bands, and other performing groups practice for hours spurred on by the competitive spirit. Fair competition is valuable and can be lots of fun. Competition in classrooms, however, is fun for the winner but is often unfair for the others because the same children usually win, making it uninvolving and dull for others.

If a student rarely finds himself in the winner’s circle, then competitive approaches kill the drive for learning. Think of it this way. People compete because they want to win. They love the feelings of winning. Nobody enters a competition wanting to lose. And, most significantly, competition is particularly counterproductive to learning when the learning is at the beginning stages.

Competitive approaches influence students to work against each other, rather than for each other and with each other. “Serve yourself” is the motto. In addition, competition often fosters feelings of disappointment, which diminish the innate desire to participate in an activity.

Teachers of early grades work with children who come to school eager to learn, but competition dulls the spirit for many. For example, when the kindergarten teacher says, “Boys and girls, let’s see who can make the best drawing?” the competitive spirit is fostered. The assumption, of course, is that this charge will spur the youngsters to do their best. Unfortunately, the teacher has unwittingly set up only one of the students to be the winner. Even if all the pictures were to be posted, the inference is that only one would be the best picture. The teacher has unintentionally fostered “non-winning” with the other children simply because competition, by its very nature, creates winners and losers.

In band and athletic competitions, losing may build character. However, in schooling—especially when a student is first learning—successes, rather than failures, build character and esteem. In the above example, the teacher could challenge the students without having them compete with each other by saying, “Boys and girls, let’s see how good of a drawing you can make.” 

Competition leads to sorting which, to a very young person, often fosters feelings of disappointment, which diminish the innate desire to participate in the activity—in this case, learning. A common example of such a competitive approach is the use of ratings where students are ranked according to their grades, accomplishments, or some other criteria.

As I visit classrooms from Los Angeles to New York City, I see the traditional mode of teachers asking questions and students (who want to participate) raising their hands to be called upon. This approach sets students up to compete for the teacher’s attention. Using this approach, the only winner becomes the person the teacher calls upon. In a primary class, one can audibly hear the sound of disappointment in those who were not called on.

There is no doubt that some students who strive to be at the top are stimulated by such incentives. But ratings are an incentive only for these students interested in the reward—in this case ranking high. And even though the incentive of ranking high may influence some students in a positive way, it does not necessarily enhance the quality of the learning. The reason is that the focus becomes whatever is necessary to achieve the ranking, which is not necessarily the same as quality learning. And, even more importantly, it discourages other members of the class who know they will never rank near the top. “Serve yourself” is the theme. In addition, some people who garner good ratings—especially those caught up with perfectionism—often register a paradox; they feel that they don’t deserve to be ranked above some of their classmates. On the other hand, those who received low ratings often feel they have been misjudged. To put it simply, class rankings destroy team spirit and community.

The education community should not be stuck in the outmoded model of promoting competition between students. It is not the path to quality work. Teachers can prove the point to themselves by simply taking a student poll. Ask students how many believe they do their best in school. The higher the grade levels, the lower will be the percentage of positive answers.

It is imperative to understand that grades serve as an incentive in much the same way that rankings do. Many students are interested in achieving high grades. However, today there are thousands of young people in classrooms who show little interest in grades. Grades do not serve as an incentive for them. Again, when grades are an incentive, the focus is on this external reward, often at the expense of the intrinsic satisfaction of quality work. In addition, there are many areas where earning good grades is frowned upon by youth cultures. The braggadocio of some parents who proudly proclaim on their car, “My student is the honor student of the month” is also frowned upon, as illustrated by the bumper sticker, “My kid beat up your honor roll student.”

We cannot really blame the parent for this display that denigrates character education. The fault is in the system. The same is true for the school’s attempts to encourage honesty when the system encourages cheating—a major unnecessary problem that permeates schools. Dr. Joseph Duran taught that whenever there is a problem, 85% of the time it is with the system. Only 15% of the time will it be the fault of the people. W. Edwards Deming went further and suggested that the ratio is closer to 95-5. This is certainly the situation with cheating in schools. If the emphasis is on grades—rather than on the joy of learning or intrinsic motivation—then students will do whatever it takes to get grades. The answer is not to crack down harder on cheaters and somehow enforce honesty; the answer is to change the system, or at least in a classroom to change the emphasis.

Grades change motivation. Teachers know this from the questions students ask. “Will it be on the test?” or “Will it be counted in the grade?” The focus is not on quality learning but, rather, on the extrinsic reward of the grade. This is not the case in areas like performing arts and vocational classes. Students in these classes know that grades can even interfere with quality work. A performing student is not concerned with the grade. It’s the excitement, personalization, and pride of what students accomplish that generates quality work. Similarly, the student working on electricity is not interested in only half the electrical charges being conducted, or a welding be only 50% satisfactory, or the car starting only 75% of the time. Can you imagine a dentist or an airline pilot pleased with anything other than their best efforts? Their motivation is on the quality of their work. That is where the satisfaction is—not from external evaluation such as competing for grades. This same drive for quality work can be fostered in academic classes. But an emphasis on grades, either by the teacher or student, is counterproductive to this end.

Grades will not disappear from the education scene. However, grades need not drive teaching, since they do not drive quality learning. For a start, teachers can do better than grade on a curve that automatically casts half of the students in a class to a below average rating. Instead, grades should be thought of as goals, which are mutually established by the class as well as the teacher. Start with the vision that the role of the teacher is to assist students not only to learn and grow but also to enjoy the process. Explain and discuss with students the nature of external assessments, such as grades. Discuss how an emphasis on grades focuses motivation on the external reward of the grade rather than on the joy in learning.


The advantages of collaboration over competition for improved learning have been known and demonstrated for many years.

Here is a simple way to structure student interaction for maximum participation. First, two requisites: (1) Students have a learning buddy. (2) You have established a management attention procedure that allows you to almost instantaneously regain the attention of all students.

Instead of asking a question, which often implies a correct answer, and then calling on a single person, pose the question. Posing, in contrast to asking, is open-ended, invites students to engage in thought, and engenders dialog.

After students interact with each other, the teacher then discusses or gives the answer. Students quickly learn that the teacher is interested in everyone’s involvement. In cases where one answer is correct, students who know it gain intrinsic satisfaction that comes from “being right.”

Here is a simple example that I used in my elementary, middle, and high school classes.

The Friday before Presidents Day, I show a picture of Mount Rushmore with the sculptured heads of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln. I introduce the topic by saying that on Monday we will be celebrating the presidents of our country and, to promote appreciation and celebration, school will not be held. I then pose a question students are to discuss with their learning buddies. With elementary students, the question relates to identifying the first and/or third president. With middle and high school students the question relates to the only president who lived in the 20th century.

Notice that the strategy promotes 100 per cent participation because every student talks to a learning buddy. Even a shy student will participate with one other  student. Also, notice that students first grapple with the idea or concept. This approach of challenging students at the outset with discussion is the approach used so effectively in Japanese schools. This grappling fosters curiosity, interest, and motivation.

When activities are structured to be primarily collaborative, learning becomes noncompetitive, all students participate, and learning is enhanced.

In sum, although competition can serve as in incentive to improve performance, it can have a negative effect on learning. This is especially the case where success, not defeat, is so necessary when first learning a skill. Competition can also have a deleterious effect because some students find themselves rarely winning, thereby decreasing their motivation. In addition, the focus becomes one of winning or getting the prize, often at the expense of the joy of learning and quality work.

1 Comment
  1. It was very good and informative.