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Competition: It’s Only for the Winners

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Competition is only for winners-Brilliant or Insane

Before the days of electronic gradebooks, every week I posted a printout with student grades. High-achieving students raced over, comparing their grades down to the hundredth, while less academic students shrugged off the opportunity to check their grades.

While most schools have shifted to electronic gradebooks, the insane practice of grading continues, and of equal detriment so too does competition associated with them. But classroom competitions extend beyond grades to include review games, spelling bees, awards ceremonies, and other daily activities.

First, let me state that I’m an extremely competitive person and I see value in competition, but the value of competing against others vanishes as soon as you have no shot at winning. The only person motivated by competition is the one who is sure to be victorious.

As a youngster, I went to an overnight sports camp where an annual tradition involved a camp-wide tennis tournament. One year, the first game of the tournament pitted me against a nationally ranked player. I, on the other hand, only picked up a racket for this tournament, and for the last couple of years, I had been eliminated in the first round.

After being shutout in the first few games, I threw a John McEnroe-like tantrum and walked off the clay court in disgust.

A couple of weeks ago at a county-wide administrative academy, we played a game of Kahoot! After missing the first several questions, I sat near the bottom of the rankings.

Finally, I got a question right and I moved from the very bottom to the bottom decile. With no chance of winning in sight, I started randomly selecting answers. I was reminded, the only person motivated by competition is the one who has a chance of winning. I had no chance. I had given up. The game wasn’t even fun anymore.

As educators instead of using competitions, we must emphasize personal growth.

Several years ago, as a high school girls basketball coach, my team faced the daunting task of playing a team ranked in the top 5 nationally. We had no chance of winning, so leading up to the game, as a team, we devised several goals and individual goals to ensure we weren’t competing against the other team but were instead competing against ourselves.

We lost the game by an unmentionable number, but our morale remained high because we weren’t competing against them but were instead competing against ourselves.

Teachers must do the same in their classrooms; I’ve tried it, and it replaces competition with self-efficacy.

For each vocabulary unit, students were pre-tested on the next 20 words. Using that score, each student set an individual goal and we set a classroom goal. Instead of using traditional grades, students assessed themselves based on their own goals.

Students were given–and used–multiple opportunities to achieve their goals. When one student failed to meet his/her goal, another student offered encouragement and assistance. Instead of competing against each other, students were competing against themselves.

As educators, we owe it to our students to eliminate competition and instead focus on personal growth and cooperation.

Doing so will increase motivation and reduce the feeling of failure that accompanies traditional grades.

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Reed Gillespie

Reed is a longtime educator and coach, who is passionate about progressive learning and 21st-century assessment practices. Read more of his work here. "I'm a co-moderator of #VAchat, a Twitter conversation for Virginia (and non-Virginian) educators that meets Monday's at 8 ET. Most importantly, I'm a father of four wonderful children and a couple grandchildren. In my free time, I enjoy cooking, reading, sports and, of course, spending time with family."
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