Competition’s Disadvantages

Just yesterday I sat listening, mouth wide open, as my dentist and his assistant chatted and worked on my teeth.  At one point their conversation turned to family and they updated each other on the lives of their respective children.  The dental assistant asked how the dentist’s son, a first year of Med student, was doing.  Since the boy had always been a good student, she wondered if he was still getting good grades.  The dentist said, “I really don’t know.  They don’t give grades anymore.  The only mark Med students receive is Pass or Fail.”

When she expressed surprise, he went on to explain further.  He said that things were much different now than when he himself had attended the same university in the 70’s.  Although he was enrolled in Dentistry, many first year classes for future dentists and doctors at that time were held together.  He said that in his day it seemed that the professors’ job was to point out to each student how little they knew, basically using humiliation and competition as an incentive for students to try harder or do better.  He said that 30 or so years later, his son was now part of a much different learning environment.
His son described professors who emphasized that their job was to encourage and actively support students.  Teachers explained that in the past they had found that the competitive atmosphere that resulted from revealing specific grades had been highly destructive and had altered student focus.  They found that competition got in the way of real learning––so much so, that the university had abandoned the traditional grading system in favor of a Pass/Fail approach which they found to be much more satisfactory.
Having experienced the destructive nature of using competition in my own classroom as a beginning teacher and being a long-time fan of Marvin Marshall’s approach, I was certainly interested and happy to hear of this change of direction (at least in this one particular faculty) in the largest post-secondary educational institution in my province.
It prompted me to look up “competition” in the index of  Dr. Marshall’s.  Here are some points from his book, Discipline without Stress:
• Competition serves as an incentive to improve performance but often has a negative effect on learning.
• If a student rarely finds himself in the winner’s circle, competitive approaches kill his drive for learning.
• Even though the incentive of ranking high may influence some students in a positive way, it does not necessarily enhance the the quality of their learning.  The focus becomes whatever is necessary to achieve the ranking, which is not necessarily the same as quality learning.
• Cheating in schools [can be] the product of competition.  If the emphasis is on grades––rather than learning––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.
• Measuring almost always leads to self-downing and self-deprecation because there is always a chance that the goal will not be achieved.  This is the case when the person has not met with success or believes that someone else is superior.  Even if self-esteem is raised, and the person feels good momentarily, the feeling is conditional because in order to maintain it, the individual must keep attaining the goals which require constant effort.  In addition, measuring oneself is disadvantageous because it tends to lead to anxiety.  Measuring may result in the person’s feeling less successful than desired and my produce a pessimistic belief of the inability to change or to improve.  This in turn causes the person to try even less, resulting in even lower achievement.
• Discussions about what constitutes quality improve student work.