Competition is a poor substitute for the academic and social challenges that students should be facing in school. While challenges and competitions may both push students to perform, competition creates fear of failure whereas personal challenges present opportunities.
Certainly, there are competitive people. Those individuals thrive on winning, on being better than everyone else. Throughout their lives, competitive people will put themselves into competition. Because it suits them, because it is who they are. Athletes are a prime example. If they don’t win the race or the game, they lose. Losing makes them train harder. Competitive motivation pushes these people to excel. It also pushes many people away.
Education is about gaining skills and knowledge. It is also about learning who we are, how to interact socially, what we’re good at, and what we’re not good at. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to want to prove that they are better than everyone else at everything. While those individuals do exist, they are not the norm for which education should be structured.
Each of us is born with gifts, interests, and abilities. The competitive environment often teaches us too well what we’re not good at and neglects developing what we are good at. In a class of 30 students, in a highly competitive academic environment, only the top students “win”, while all the others are taught that they are “losers”, rather than gaining skills and knowledge that will prove useful later in life.
Martha Graham, the creator of modern dance, was quoted saying, “You can only compete against what you know you can become.” Forcing students to compete in an academic environment is a poor excuse for creating valid personal challenges that will help all students improve, while still maintaining their sense of worth.
Point of fact, many lower performing, noncompetitive students are struggling and failing because they have already learned too well that they will never “win”, so they give up. At the same time, by creating relevant personal challenges for students, teachers can organize their curriculum in such as way that each student is competing against themselves, rather than a statistical average or a cross-cultural bell curve.
It’s not that competition is bad. Without competition for survival, most species would become extinct through the continuation of bad genes. In real life, many jobs and situations require a competitive attitude and there is nothing wrong with that. When dealing with children in school, however, it is more important to help them move forward from where they are, both academically and socially.
By creating personal challenges in education, teachers encourage students to find what works for them. There are many different learning styles, teaching techniques, and testing methods. In order for education to be successful, students and teachers alike should be encouraged to challenge themselves to excel in their area of interest. How else can we learn to value the differences which give humanity the variety it needs to be successful?