As people respond to the automated SBG persuader, I get anonymous emails with their disagreements. Here’s a big one. It is in response to the premise that “final grades would more accurately reflect current understanding if we could only use recent scores to calculate them.”
“How is that fair to the student that learned addition quicker? Shouldn’t the grade ultimately rank my students according to their ability?”
Sure, pitting kids against each other until they’re tearing at each other’s eyes is fun. But is it right? To me, the answer is “obviously not.” Is it effective as an educational tool? Obviously not. Is it the principle off of which we want kids to model their lives? Obviously not!
Is the point of education to figure out which kid is the best? Say it with me: obviously fucking not.
Sorry. I was being a little sarcastic up there, but let’s be reasonable. The argument for competition in a classroom is that a competitive atmosphere is motivating and can raise the overall level of achievement. What better way is there to get Sarah to raise her grade to a 95 than telling her that Rebecca has a 94?
The problem I have with this is that it focuses solely on the grade. Ranking students by grade, so that they compete for grades, makes them care about the grade. I want them to care about learning. As Alfie Kohn says in The Schools Our Children Deserve, “The difference between learning and achievement is hard enough to grasp; the difference between doing well and doing better than others is especially confusing in a society so obsessed with being Number One that the ideas of excellence and winning have been thoroughly conflated.”
Now I’m going to slam you with some research that Alfie Kohn compiled. Watch out. Just read the bold sections unless you’re going to check my references.
- Susan Nolen’s study titled “Reasons for Studying: Motivational Orientations and Study Strategies” concluded that students who equate success with surpassing others are more likely to think in a “surface-level” way.
- Carole Ames published “Children’s Achievement Attributions and Self-Reinforcement: Effects of Self-Concept and Competitive Reward Structure” in the Journal of Educational Psychology with a conclusion that students are more likely to feel empowered to affect their own achievements when those achievements are not linked to competitive results.
- P.S. Fry and K.J. Coe concluded in “Interaction Among Dimensions of Academic Motivation and Classroom Social Climate: A study of the Perceptions of Junior High and High School Pupils” that competitive environments “cause students to dislike school and show less interest in a given subject.”
- From David and Roger Johnson said in Cooperation and Competition: Theory and Research, Kohn concluded that when a group includes members of different ability levels, they “learn more effectively on a range of tasks when they’re able to cooperate with one another than when they’re trying to defeat one another.”
I’m glad that there’s research I can use to bolster my intuition. I don’t think that competition should play a significant role in education, and, since grades are often viewed as the “conclusion” or “you know, the point” of school, I really don’t think that grades should be based on competition.
If you use competition in your class, I’d love to hear how you justify it. Again, I’m open to the idea that I’m wrong, or missing a subtlety. I hope my intro wasn’t so caustic that you aren’t reading this. I guess that’s impossible, since you’re clearly reading this if you’re reading this. But you know what I mean.