Research shows that competition increases stress, aggression and inequity and it reduces self-esteem and sharing. At the same time, cooperation fosters respect, sharing, and healthy relationships—as well as productivity. Why then do we unabashedly engage in so much competition in our schools, teaching our kids to think that competition is necessary? Indeed, why do so many of the funded and fashionable educational “reforms” of the last decade glorify competition? We compete reflexively due to cultural bias (as Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out.) Our leaders herald competition through “Race to the Top” for example as if it’s an essential and desirable aspect of public life. But it wasn’t always this way. Longstanding humanistic traditions in education going back to John Dewey and Maria Montessori as well as Waldorf education have promoted cooperation as opposed to competition. Modern research backs them up. Cooperation just makes common sense—it feels good. And as far as complex problem solving is concerned, we all know that two (or more!) heads are better than one. Of course, individual learning is important, too. The point we are making at CooperativeGames.com is that when we come together socially, cooperation is the healthiest and most productive mode of interaction we can choose.
The pendulum in education is always swinging. Soon cooperation is bound to resurface as a guiding ethic in education and public life, advanced anew by the educational establishment. Meanwhile, we can mitigate the stress of excess competition and keep the spirit of cooperation alive. Here are a few pointers.
To keep a cooperative tone in your classroom:
- Post charts that show which students are ahead.
- Turn learning into a constant contest. Motivate with (1) enriched, integrated, relevant curriculum (2) giving students choices so they can exercise their own learning styles (3) positive and caring student-teacher relationship
- Rely upon motivating students with the short-term fixes of contests and extraneous rewards.
- Read student scores aloud.
- Post classroom averages or grade distributions on the board.
- Return tests in order of grades.
- Encourage students to compete with one another.
- Use language that encourages competition or status hierarchies such as, “George is the best speller in the class” or “Kara is my neatest student.”
- Play cooperative games so students can discover the benefits of cooperation through direct personal experience.
- Encourage students to help one another.
- Talk to parents about how you encourage cooperation in order to boost students’ self-esteem, collaborative skills, positive community and problem-solving skills.
- Utilize cooperative learning and collaborative learning pedagogy.
- Explicitly discuss competition and cooperation with your students.
You will have a teachable moment at your disposal after your students have played a cooperative game. Any of the cooperative games for education available at this site can be used as a jumping-off point to discussion of cooperation and competition.
Intimate discussions are best conducted while sitting in a circle. You will find that even very young children understand the distinction between competition and cooperation when asked to articulate their thoughts. You may be surprised to see how conscious they are of the good feelings and productivity that come from working together, rather than against each other. Older students can extend the concept to discuss the impact of excess competition on global issues including the economy, the environment, and maintenance of the commons. Meaningful discussions and personal reflection can follow if you brainstorm the ways one might choose cooperation in a society where so many institutions are structured competitively.
The spirit of cooperation is inclusive and tolerant. So you’ll want to hold the space in a neutral way to facilitate open conversation. Students have been socialized to accept many myths about the value of competition. Such ideas will probably surface in your discussion. The idea is not to decry competition or make it taboo. Instead the goal is to allow students to ponder the benefits of cooperation and imagine ways to extend it into realms where it is needed.
For more research and discussion related to the downsides of competition versus the upsides of cooperation, refer to Suzanne’s e-book, Cooperative Play, Antidote to Excess Competition. Click HERE to download it for free. It will give you a framework for discussing this issue with students, parents, and colleagues. Tell a friend!
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