One for All, All for One

Manju Gupta
CoverstoryCompetition has always been a part of the education system. The connotations and interpretations of the word have changed over time, but essentially, it has been a force that has been used to motivate students to better their performance – and sometimes in rather detrimental ways. Perhaps it is time we looked at competition from a new perspective and made it a boon rather than a bane in the classroom. Many of us bemoan the fact that education has become too fiercely competitive, that the process of learning receives less attention than the product that we are contributing to a cut-throat culture where achievement means everything and understanding almost nothing. So can we do anything to change this?

It is true that many aspects of life and living are competitive. But it is also true that for the most part competition is often a self-imposed or at least a self-selected condition. We can just as easily live an existence defined more by collaborative and self-referential goals than by competition with others. So to say that the “real world” is inherently competitive is for the most part a subjective projection. As teachers, we place students in artificially constructed competitive situations in the hope that we are preparing them for the real world; what we don’t realize, however, is that we are only imposing our own world-view on them. One could, in fact, argue that in a broad sense, we as educators create a more or less competitive world by encouraging our students to think and relate to one another in a particular way.

As educators, we also are shaped by what we were exposed to as students and then apply what we have learned in our work as teachers. There is no doubt that competition cannot be eschewed completely, but it is essential to understand the psyche of students and think about the likely consequences before we incorporate competitive activities in our classrooms.

When exposed to competitions, the high achievers thrive on the adulation and rewards that competition brings and are spurred to strive for better results. The flip side is that the others in the classroom can be de-motivated and it can lead to a vicious circle of “failure- low self esteem-disinterest”, thereby hampering the intellectual growth of a child. In a class of thirty students, for one or two triumphant students, there is a majority that ends up disappointed.

Teachers often encourage competition and competitive thinking assuming that such an approach leads to success. Ranks, marks, grades, merit cards and that first-in-class honor become focus issues; knowledge, concepts and learning for life recede to the background! In today’s world,
competition leads to serious repercussions as most children in the urban areas belong to nuclear families where both parents are busy trying to eke out a living with less time for emotional bonding. So when a child is not able to keep up with the competition in class, there is no one to motivate him and this can lead to depression.

When they are constantly pitted against one another, children can hardly develop excellence of spirit. Excessive competition in examinations has led to anguish amongst students at the high school and college levels, resulting in crises like suicide and sometimes even murder. Parents whose children thrive on competition are often in favor of competition. Their attitude, they feel, is vindicated, when their offspring are awarded prizes. Do they spare a thought for the non-achievers? Isn’t there excellence in the “others” as well? How often do we see that gold medalists are not necessarily nice people to know?

Many great teachers have considered the aspect of fear and anxiety engendered by competition in the classroom. To quote J. Krishnamurthi, “The highest function of the educator is not only to bring about academic excellence, but more important, the psychological freedom of the student himself.” He continues, “Competition exists only when there is comparison, and comparison does not bring about excellence.”

For the most part competition creates a sense of external urgency. It shifts our focus from attention to the task to attention to the cost of our performance involved in the task. For example, if the task were to assemble a model airplane, we could make it into a competition by turning it into a race to see who could finish the task first. Consider how the competitive element changes the task. The sense of urgency (for those who care about winning that is) goes up to some extent. The purpose of the activity shifts away from learning (i.e., engagement in making sense of the various elements of the process) and attempting to understand what a quality effort would involve, to efficiency and speed. The activity becomes less about something in which to engage and more about a means to an end (winning).

The process or at least reflecting on the process of the task becomes less important than the product itself. This shift in focus seems to occur no matter what the teacher may say either to encourage it or to discourage it. The structure itself causes the shift.

In The Case Against Competition, Alfie Kohn argues that teachers construct competitive activities because of mistaken assumptions. “Competition”, says Kohn, “does not motivate students to do their best; it does not build students’ character or self-esteem; and it does not help students build good social skills.” Author and speaker Marvin Marshall agrees that competition “dulls the spirits” of kids who find themselves outside the winner’s circle. In Discipline Without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards, he describes a kindergarten teacher who believed she was motivating her students by saying, “Boys and girls, let’s see who can make the best drawing.” Unwittingly, the teacher had set up only one student to be the winner.

We have to find ways of teaching that do not use competition as the incentive to learning – or rather, to the production of ‘learning outcomes’. Working co-operatively is necessary among students, as well as between the teacher and the student. Unrelenting competitiveness is destructive not only in the classroom, but right through life. For instance, the teacher could have group rather than individual competitions. Assignments, projects, problem solving and other exercises are exciting when given to groups within the class. To prevent rivalry between individuals or groups building up, the children could be regularly regrouped. In one school in Hyderabad, for instance, every term sees the children in different ‘houses’ for sports and other activities – this way, the children keep learning that working together as a team is just as important as performing ‘against’ other teams.

There are situations, however, where healthy competition can be encouraged – where children egg each other on to outdo themselves. This allows competition to be internalised, where children understand, from a young age, that if at all necessary, they only need to measure themselves against their own earlier achievements, as a pointer towards their own capability. Educators need to evaluate students according to their individual strengths and weaknesses and not by comparing them with other students in the class. An individualistic goal structure needs to be set up by the teacher and the learner, based on the learner’s performance. This helps the child analyse and assess his/her own strengths and weaknesses and think about how to go ahead.

Now what do we mean by healthy competition? These can be held for fun, where the reward is not valuable or real and it has no long-term effect. Competition becomes unhealthy when the winners attain a feeling of superiority and victory leads to adulation and advantages, which in turn wins them social or educational capital.

While not actually visualising a world devoid of competition (the military fields and the market place are always there), one can safely assert that if a child is brought up in a non-competitive ambience, he is more likely to succeed in the competitive world outside. Not reaching the top of the ladder does not crush him emotionally. If he succeeds, he takes it in his stride, with a wholesome understanding of the other aspirants. He does not let the anguish of comparison and competition eat into his self-esteem. Striving competitively becomes a way of thinking and places a heavier burden on the mind, with the passing of years. Understanding and acceptance of varying talent in oneself and others should be cultivated. Cooperation with others will make for harmony within the self and in relationships with others.

The same logic needs to be applied to academic outcomes. If we are playing a game with academic content, it can be fun and help reinforce certain skills and content. For example, teachers who use a quiz, a team knowledge competition, or a debate between two groups, to review for tests, are raising the level of interest and excitement while accomplishing essentially the same degree of content processing. But if the outcome of the game becomes part of what is formally graded, the competition goes from being healthy to being unhealthy. The other members of the class are seen less as participants in the activity and become obstacles to achieving a meaningful outcome. And students begin to associate the teacher less with fun and more with the cause of their dissatisfaction. If you want to test this principle, you could find two classes, one where competitions are graded (as in most mainstream schools), and one where grade outcomes and game outcomes are kept separate (perhaps in an “alternative” school). Observe what happens over time. At first they will look very similar, up until the end, when one team is likely to display a lot of bitterness and the other great relief. Over time you will see that where the outcome is graded, it will become more and more aggressive, more students will contest answers, the shift from process to product discussed above will increase, and students will have less fun. In the condition where grades and points are kept separate (and the principles of healthy competition are maintained) the degree of fun will stay high, with the only change being the increased sophistication of the strategies incorporated in the game.

GlobeMany educationists now believe that cooperative learning is much more beneficial and results in better learning outcomes in the long term than competition, even though, in the short term, competition appears to lead to better motivation. Most work environments tend to require cooperative functioning, where team members depend on each other to get a job done and where skills are complementary. Inculcating a cooperative environment in the classroom teaches children how to work as a team, and also shows them that learning is much more fun when everyone shares in it.

To sum up, competition can be used to advantage in a classroom if it leads to collaborative learning without losing sight of the learning outcomes. Ranks and marks in report cards must be done away with. While reporting on a child’s progress in class, remarks rather than grades should interpret the child’s performance. The learner’s areas of strengths must be highlighted and strategies to overcome his weaknesses must be suggested. This will end competition to achieve the first rank in class and will definitely boost the child to perform better. A conducive environment with no threat of competition will allow the child to blossom and achieve his full potential in a relaxed atmosphere. Most often the fear of competition makes the child nervous and he forgets even what he knows. So as educators let us innovate methods wherein competition does not hang like the sword of Damocles over our children. We need to evolve strategies to make the teaching-learning process productive with healthy and not unhealthy competitions.

The author is Director, Pallavi Model School, Hyderabad. She can be reached at

The cooperative edge

Janaki N Iyer
Eleven-year-old Sonali sat at her table with a frown on her otherwise bright face. Her maths notebook had been stolen in class and she had been asked to work out all the sums again. The fact that her book was found on the terrace after the wind and rain had played havoc on it did not make her feel better. Some child in the class who had resented Sonali’s first rank had wanted to hurt her in some way. Excessive emphasis on marks and ranks laid by the school and parents had resulted in this vandalism. Yet, how often one hears that competition brings out the best in a student!

The years spent in school are the formative years for any child. This is the perfect time for the child to pick up the virtues of cooperation and the joy of sharing.

Years ago, when I worked in a school in Mumbai, I thought it would be interesting to interact with children outside the classroom situation. So I took charge of two clubs – the Response Club and the Nature Club. Neither of these clubs had competitions. Boys and girls happily contributed speeches, book reviews, etc., and discussed whatever caught their interest. No one was adjudged the best speaker or debater, but each one was told about the good and the not-so-good features of their effort. In this non-competitive atmosphere the shy ones began to be articulate and self-expression gave them joys that no prize could have ever brought about.

These were the children who did outstandingly well in the final examinations as they had learnt to think beyond the confines of their textbooks, had looked at newspapers, magazines and books and formed their own opinions. Here, it was the absence of the spirit of competition which brought out the best in each of these children.

One has to eschew competition from all activities to understand that it is not only possible, but also desirable to have a cooperative and friendly atmosphere to nourish students’ self-esteem and creativity. It is necessary to have group work, too, since it aids the development of students’ social skills. They learn to work together and share knowledge and experience. This also means that the special skills and talents of every child contributes to the whole and the group learns to take pride in the output which is better than the work done individually.

This attitude can help children cope better with life outside the classroom as well, as the following example shows. A group of children from a relatively “privileged” school spent some time interacting with children of the same age group from economically underprivileged backgrounds. One of the children from the “advantaged” group asked the other, “What do you feel when you look at girls like us, who have all these opportunities and advantages? Does it make you want to be like us?” The other girls replied, “We don’t make such comparisons. We do what we have to do, to the best of our ability.” The “underprivileged” children felt no need to compare themselves with others, or to meet standards set by some other group. They very realistically set their own goals which they tried to achieve to the best of their ability.

Co-operative Edge
Fritjof Capra, in The Turning Point, says that while studying the living world, one comes to know that cooperation is an essential characteristic of living organisms. Quoting Lewis Thomas, he says, “We do not have solitary beings. Every creature is, in some sense, connected to and dependent on the rest.” If this is the underlying reality of the world, where do we have room for competition? Once again Capra says, “Excessive aggression, competition and destructive behaviour are predominant only in the human species and have to be dealt with in terms of cultural values rather than being “explained” pseudo-scientifically as inherently natural phenomena.” So let’s overhaul our classrooms on the eve of the new millennium and replace stressful competition with wholesome cooperation.

(Extracted from Teacher Plus, July-August 1999)

Note: Janaki Iyer, along with her friend Bhagyalakshmi, founded a non-formal school called Ananda Bharati in Hyderabad. Janaki passed away in September 2006 but the school continues to cater to girls who are unable to access mainstream schools.

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