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Awards Prepare Kids For The ‘Real World’ – Really?

I am pleased to have Brian Barry (@nunavut_teacher) as a guest blogger.  Brian is  a Grade 9 Math/Science teacher from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada who is passionate about education technology and human motivation.  His thoughts on motivation, including rewards and punishment, continue to inspire me as an educator.  For more thoughts from Brian, check out his blog, Against the Wind.

By Brian Barry

When I have the energy I will engage people on why I disagree with awards in school.  The retort I hear most to support awards is, “Well, it’s like that in the ‘real world.’”

Inspired by Rick Lavoie’s talk about competition, I decided to engage today.  I asked a couple of friends a few questions.  (One was a teacher and the other was not.)

I asked if a 120 lb wrestler should be competing against a 200 lb wrestler at the Olympics? They answered, “No.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not fair. They should be competing against their own weight class in order to make it fair.” I agreed. (I also noted that the wrestlers choose to wrestle and train for the Olympics. They were not forced to do it.)

Next, I asked the teacher, “Do you have different reading levels in your class?”

“Yes, there is a wide range.”  So I asked why is it fair to be giving out an award for “Best reader” in your class if it is not a fair contest?  I also noted students don’t walk into class with a choice to compete for that award. It is a given.  The competition is forced upon them.  Indeed, when I framed the anti-award argument in that way, I made some head way with them.

Rick Lavoie notes two differences in competition in schools as compared with the “real world.”

  1. In the world outside of school, people only compete when they want to.
  2. We only compete against peers.

So, if you want to wrestle you choose to do that against others who choose to wrestle. Further, you wrestle against your peers- the same weight class.

In school, students compete against classmates for awards. However, the competition is not a choice as it is thrust upon them.  Moreover, that competition is not against their peers. People may be in the same grade but have different abilities. (Note: When using peer in this paragraph I mean a person who is equal to another in abilities.)

Moreover, Rick Lavoie also notes the following:  Only people who feel they have a chance of winning will compete.  Thus, the competition in class only works for a few.  Indeed, competition creates an atmosphere where students see each other as obstacles, instead of seeing them as team or group members working for a common cause- learning.

I submit to you, as Rick Lavoie does, that it’s time to celebrate personal best, not the best. So, the question still remains: Why are students competing for  awards in school again? It sure does not reflect the so called “real world.”

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

23 Comments

  1. Bravo! Great post and points pulled together!

    I often hear, “A little bit of competition can be a good thing”. I say, in its place….

    If we need to resort to competition to encourage learning, what does that say…really? It doesn’t seem like an inclusive approach to supporting learners. Your points make a good case to that, Brian!

  2. I will add another point to yours when you say that the choice to compete is not given to students. A competition may actually end up decreasing motivation for some – it can be a turn off and lead to less engagement. You are also pointing to the importance of understanding what students bring with them to the classroom and that these vast differences need to be considered when integrating any kind of reward system.

    Good Post!

  3. The practice of inadvertently putting students in a position where they are forced to compete against their peers may be of particular concern in Aboriginal and Inuit communities. In my view many of the students struggle with internalizing information as a result of trauma related to historical and current day living conditions. Recovery from trauma is connected to an ability to exert personal power. As a result, being forced into circumstances or situations is counterproductive.

  4. I couldnt be in any more disagreement. People are continously thrust into award situations that they are not trying to compete in. People are contiously pitted against their peers and coworkers as well as outside sources. The notion that fight or flight is not an important human response is why the children of today have become the lazy, uncaring adults of tomorrow. Competition is what breeds innovations and remember no wars no penicilin and the list goes on. To say that it is not a fair contest is wrong. If you want to be better you have to have a motivating factor. You can only get better by playing a better oponent. By takeing away the motivation you end up with the disgruntled youth of today who sit around and do nothing. Comparing it to wrestling is a bad idea asd everyday you are pitted against people who are not your peers. Two people apply for a job one has a doctorate the other does not, you cannot say those people are peers at any point. Competition and failing, makes society better. Basic psychology and with children you need positive and negative reinforcement. So to say take awards out of school is like saying who cares how werll you do, because university will accept you no matter how lazy you are, know you are just lying to the kids. If the understand its a competition which children do. This is the same attitude that has principals puinishing bullying victims rather than the bully.

  5. Rich – I hope that you have subscribed to the comments because you bring up some great points that are well needed in this conversation.

    Having said that, I think your points actually work in favour Brian and my opinion on awards. You state that the kids of today are “lazy” or what I would call “unmotivated”. These children are in a system WITH awards and it is these kind of things that are disengaging youth and that is WHY it needs to change. We also need to stop romanticizing the past – there were unmotivated kids when I was in school, when you were in school and there still are today – that is why we need to work to create self-motivated kids who don’t NEED that prize and don’t say… well, if there is no trophy or money in it, why should I do it?

    Let’s be honest, the adults of today (that went through a system you are trying to keep) aren’t exactly doing things in such a magnificent way – wars, terrorism, racism, human right violations, bankruptcies and national debt have been created by adults who went through a system based on extrinsic rewards/awards.

    So thank you so much for adding more fuel to our argument on why awards should not be in school and why our system needs to change. We need driven, self-motivated adults, not those that chase that carrot and if they believe they cannot get there… give up.

    One question for you: if competition is so important in schools, why not just have ONE award that everyone in the whole city competes for? That would amp up the competition and create many more losers who would be motivated to win the next year. Or should have many awards… or why not just recognize each child for the strengths they have and have them use these strengths to change our world for the better?

    One more thing – “kids these days” who are intrinsically motivated ARE changing the world… I am proud of “kids these days”

  6. First of, thank you so much for this conversation and for making me discover Mr Lavoie. It’s been two hours i am watching his videos on youtube and i finally decided to reply to this article.

    Here is my point : i don’t like competition… but i am trying hard to teach my students Performance. I think in a lot of minds both are related. You can only become better by diminishing others. Or if there is a winner it is because there are failures.

    I believe we can all win but not all at the same time, the same day, the same award. As a French and ICT teacher i try to make all my students shine at different moments. However i do not hold back when the expectations are not met. Why ? because if the “big scary world” all my students are not going to become teachers or have wonderful caring bosses.

    Ultimately i think a primary student doesn’t need to be exposed too soon to the “big bad world” but as students get older it is not making them a favor not to prepare them for performance (through sane competition, which is sumed up like this: you do not need to walk on the head of others to advance.

    Again Personal Best against The Best 🙂

    Thank you all for the debate, really interesting

  7. You obviously did not fully read or understand my comment. I will make it very simple to understand. Without competition there would be no advancements in anything. It will cause society to stagnate as a whole. It seems human beings are not motivated by anything but competition and thought that failure is unacceptable. I go back to penicillin; this would never have been created if it wasn’t for WWI. No war no advancement in medicine. One of the many things created and advanced by competition.

    Look at the Olympics, the only way one nation (Canada) can come together and agree because it was us against the world. Competition breeds necessity. It gets the brain working to think outside the box of normal.

    With no competition you end up with lazy, uncaring children. Contrary to your comments, yes everyone had lazy, uncaring students growing up but not at the extent you see today. Lack of competition is what is breeding this. No face time with real humans. Students today are rude, nasty, lazy and as a whole becoming (pardon my French) stupider. They have a sense of entitlement. There is no earning anything. It’s give me now or else. This is what no competition has done.

    Children need competition to survive. Their brains are sponges, so the more you can fill it at a younger age the better understanding they have. If the goal is to “sissy” up the world it is working. Children of today do not play outside let alone with another child that isn’t on a headset 3000 miles away. They sit at home don’t do homework and watch one of the many screens they have.

    If you believe so badly in how bad competition is, my first suggestion would be to throw everything created due to competition. You would never do that because you would have nothing. Even the home you live on was at one point derived from competition. The competition that I have a better house for the Lady I want to live in.

    From basic psychology people respond to positive and negative re-enforcement. Well schools have taken away the negative, which was a mistake. You cannot keep a child after school; give them detention or garbage duty. Even when the child acts out so badly the spit in the teachers face and swear at them. You want to teach a lesson then use an award based system to cut that child down a peg. But no society sits by and says how bad the children have it. In BC you can’t give a child homework in elementary school. That’s garbage, I thought as a society to move forward it was supposed to get smarter. It’s been almost 20 years since I finished at elementary school and I can say that the current curriculum is about 10% of what I had to learn. So I guess we have taken a huge step backwards. This is all because someone’s feelings might get hurt. Garbage you can’t satisfy everyone’s needs its impossible and a waste of time. The majority used to rule; now all we do is cater to the minority.

    It’s funny at the most critical time in a human beings development and you want to take away a motivating factor. Strange but it sounds like you too want to stop evolution. Bad things happen to good people and life is not fair.

    These are all things children should be exposed to so the better understand and accept it. We are exposed to competition every day. Many of these times it is against someone not in our peer group. Right now we are engaged in a competition. I do understand you chose to engage in this competition but you did not choose your opponent. And in wrestling you would put someone who is twice as strong and has time the experience against a rookie competitor in the same class. Those two are not peers.

    So without competition we are further breeding unmotivated, lazy, uncaring children. These children are slowly becoming a burden on society. By making life a competition they have something to strive for. You seem to focus on academics at the heart of your argument. In school I was one of the very smart children so I received praise for that. However I was terrible at art. I never received and art award and the only time I have ever been put down by a teacher is with my art. So I’d say there is a way for students to all be good at something, but not everyone is good at the schooling. I never have been rewarded for Art but it has made me strive to learn something to compensate to remain in competition with other people. I now am an expert in CAD and Publisher, thing I only achieved because of competition.

    By understanding competition it allows for adaptation. Something that will be lost without competition among youth. I say we embrace competition rather than fighting it.

    I leave you on the point of sports. You take competition out of high school sports and you are taking the chance of a child to attend university. With no scores or stats being kept, no matter how good he/she is they will never reach university. This becomes problematic for some families, in particular the ones living around the poverty line. Why should those kids lose out? One child parents have money and another child is gifted in something. Why allow the rich child to hold everything over the child who has a gift but isn’t rewarded as such.

    Don’t take away a child’s future, because University is a major competition and they need to know the truth. Lying to your child about how the world is will only make them resent you.

    So please read my comment this time before saying I supported your theory.

  8. To answer your last question. We do have awards whole cities compete for. We call them scholarships to university and college. The goal is also to start small and make it bigger. One award also only means one subject is being tested. So fairness would have to be worked on for our theory to work. Life isnt fair and not everyones talents get recognized. Strenghts can only be recognized if you defeat someone else with it or are compared to someone else, thus making it a competition.

    Also focus on the school sytem itself as well as parents. Maybe there should be open awards for parents and teachers to more closely monitor the situations so we can make better parents and teachers. Instead of the lazy ones who let their kids do whatever they want, or ignoring them because they have been branded bad.

  9. Rich,

    I see we are on completely opposite ends of this argument. So rather than going back and forth (in which we obviously would never agree) I will continue to educate our children with informed, researched practices and in a way that give each child the best opportunity to succeed.

    Neither Brian nor I have stated that competition is a bad thing. I coach and play sports (and have done so) every week of my life. For me to state that competition is wrong would go against a part of my life. What we are saying is that we want kids to choose to engage in competition – like sports or school challenges – and not be thrust into a competition in which they have no choice.

    The last thing I want is a world full of people that ONLY give effort when there is a prize. We have not removed competition from our school; we have removed the fact that we awarded 6 students in our school for being top academic (often with supportive parents, money, English as a first language, and no disabilities)- instead we recognize each child for the gifts they have.

    It sounds like you want to educate our children like you were educated. The arguments you present are nothing I have not hear before. If we were to educate our children like you were educated, would we not be preparing for a world that no longer exists?

    I am not sure what psychology background you have but you have referenced “basic psychology”. I encourage you to read the work of Deci and Ryan – 2 world renown Psychologists that support the arguments we are presenting. I would also encourage you to read the work of economist Daniel Pink and marketing expert Seth Godin. They document much research on this same topic and how the way we motivate actually works against us.

    I don’t expect you to agree with me. This way of thinking goes against the norm and outside of people’s comfort zones. What I do expect you to do is make an informed, reflective response that is not just based on thoughts off the top of your head and YOUR experience but one that is backed by research and divergent thinking.

    I hope that your kids are not motivated solely by defeating someone else or winning a prize. I hope that they have some intrinsic drive so when there that prize is gone, they have a sense of purpose to accomplish their goals in life (by competing with themselves).

    Thank you again for sharing your view as these are common misconceptions deeply embedded in society around motivation, homework, student learning, and the state of education.

    Please feel free to comment again but I will let my other blog posts speak to my views on these topics.

    Thank you again, for taking the time – it is views like this that I need to keep in mind to ensure that I hear all perceptions when decisions are made.

  10. If you think I have not made an informed, reflective response then you have a very limited scope to what you have read on your subject. It is clear you have not read any counter arguments or looked subjectively at each piece of data put in front of you. I could sit here and quote many, many articles and theories that would destroy your way of thinking, followed by you trying to quote some more intellectuals. I will tell you this however, zero competition does not work.

    Also the moment a child steps foot in school he or she is in a competition whether you take it out of the classroom or not. The reality is that there are only 30% seats available in university and college. With there being about 20% more going to trade schools, etc. That leaves almost 5 out of 10 students with nothing to do upon graduating. That means that there are many students who will fail to advance their education. Some will not care, others will. The fact is, are you going to tell universities because we have dumbed down education so much that there are no suitable candidates? Well everyone got a B average on a mediocre curriculum. Are you suggesting if children should not be forced into competition that we should therefore do away with higher learning and advanced education. Or maybe you say to the Universities well we don’t have marks at school because we don’t believe in competition. Yah I am sure all the parents of the students you teach would approve of that.

    As a response to you quoting economists: All I have to say is you should read up on game theory and get a good full understanding of how that works before commenting. I will urge you to read up on the subject of maximization. Especially when it comes to why companies are continually upgrading their software and equipment. Read up on competitive advantages. You should be nurturing these advantages rather than saying don’t show them off and develop them. Oh yah being good at something gets you nothing but a handshake and a good job. I don’t think you understand how children work. It’s just like life there will always be a something you strive for and want but you need something someone else doesn’t have to get it. An aide to Al Gore cannot possibly be the economist you used. In several of his articles he even calls for competition, and discusses how it has shaped the world, nothing to do with children in the classroom. That’s like reading a holy book and using it as an excuse to kill people. Geee that’s only been done a couple thousand times in history. Misconception and misunderstanding will only cause more problems. You cannot read something and say it applies to your theory because you say so. These people talk about adults not children. You are now treating children like adults something you say they shouldn’t but you apply research results based on adults and apply it to children is insane. No matter how well written or in depth your research is no researcher or professional will take that as serious. I think that by hiding key elements of those discussions you are hindering the advancement of this debate as well as depriving people of a true in-depth look at the problem.

    Children need to identify failure and the consequences of such failure. You of all people should understand this, especially being a teacher. With all the cut-backs going around over 300 teachers have lost their jobs in BC. Those teachers are not trying to compete with one another but the teachers getting fired first are the ones who haven’t upgraded to a masters or enhanced their degree in some way. SO maybe we should be embracing competition rather than censoring it from the class room.

    Please show me the data that shows children are smarter than before. The only data you will find is that children of today have slightly better hand eye coordination, mainly due to video games.

    The problem is I am outside the comfort zone. I think that children should be left behind, seeing failure motivates. It’s better to see for yourself rather than hearing about it. Shows like Scared Straight show real consequences. Hiding children from the ‘big, bad world’ is just delaying the inevitable.

    The fact you are hiding behind someone else’s work just shows that you are not fully educated on the subject; and that you have just read a couple articles, saw what you liked and signed up.

    Remember in a journal article with perfect circumstances and by holding variables constant everything will work in your favour.

    For a psychologist to shoot down your point I will turn to Freud, who believed competition was mandatory for the body and mind to further grow and develop. It would also help if you would quote papers and topics rather than name dropping. At no point have you covered or supported any of your ideas other than by opinion. Then to call me out on opinion is just a mask for you to hide behind. Saying you know people proves nothing; Knowing about a subject is beyond your scope. I know it’s difficult for you to understand that there are people in this world that do not need to parrot but can take an analyze the data set forth in front of them and make it into words other than the authors.

    Also the next time you try and do an experiment, such as your example with the wrestler, you should fully document all of your findings, explain what you held constant (which was way too much), explain why you can draw the comparison (you did not) nor did you explain the expected results. At no point to did you write an academic paper. You wrote a simple opinion piece and tried to tell everyone it was fact.

    Two major problems with Rick Lavoie’s real world:

    1. You do not always get told you are in competition, in the real world.
    2. You do not always compete against your peers.

    I am seeing a lot of complaining about the situation but no answers to the problem.

    Also please explain my misconceptions about homework and the state of education. Again, to simply point out I am wrong and not telling me why is proving you do not understand what I have said or you know I am right and refuse to engage in something you know nothing about. Children do not get homework or detention, teachers complain against class sizes and the curriculum is nowhere near as hard as it was 15 years ago. If you think these are opinions open up a newspaper or turn on the television and listen to the news. Oh yah by the way any grade 4 child can barely do multiplication and division without a calculator. Too bad for them when they get to some of the nicer Universities, like Queen’s in Ontario, they do not use calculators in their first year math (aka calculus 1) or physics courses. All that’s been done over the course of this new curriculum is to hamper the development of students and make it easier on the teacher. That’s all I ever hear.

    People only ever do things for a prize, no matter how you spin it. Even the person who saves someone from drowning does it because it feels good to do it or they are going to rewarded or recognized. No matter how you spin it, the act was carried out for a prize/reward/award.
    You article up top is nothing more than opinion piece. Yet you are defending it like it’s a complete and researched topic. Research you have not performed, just read about. You have offered no scientific evidence or data to support your idea. You have not even correctly quoted people or their findings.

    Next time you want to call someone out please make sure you have done it in such a matter that is respectful and correctly formatted, instead of the meager attempt at trying to put me down because I do not agree with your point of view or opinion. If you would like to learn how to properly form an argument or produce a research paper even if it is a research proposition I would be glad to help. As for opinion pieces I feel that you have it well under control.
    I understand where you are coming from and I do not agree and that is my choice like it your choice to not agree with me.

  11. Rich, as stated before – we are too far apart on the spectrum to come to consensus. One thing you do fail to realize is that NOWHERE here do we say that we do not use competition in schools yet that has been your focus. We are NOT saying competition is bad or good. All we have done is removed 6 awards at the end of the year – competition still exists in our school on a regular basis – fun games, sports, academic challenges, solos for choir, etc.

    As stated, I appreciate your feedback as it helps to hear all sides (that is why we engaged years of discussion prior to the decision to remove awards – and my previous principal who started this conversation did her masters thesis on student motivation). With passion for child psychology and student motivation, I would suggest you get involved in educational conversations.

    A few things I would like to respond to:
    Homework – please see my blog post on this topic. Homework done at home with parents support can work, unfortunatley, not all kids have this and things are taught much differently now than when you and I were in school
    Multiplication Tables – The memorization of facts does have a role in learning and believe me, tons of time is spent on this. At some point, students must also learn what the heck multiplication is, how we can use it to problem solve real world problems. I would suggest you follow David Wees, David martin, or Dan Meyer’s blogs as they continually discuss learning in math.
    Failure – totally agree – kids need to understand how to respond to failure with a growth mindset and not just give up – failure happens every day all day and we need to learn how to respond toi it – that is what learning is.
    Teachers’ jobs – a master’s degree or more education in no way prevents you from being laid off. It is completely due to seniority – the new teachers get laid off as they cut from the bottom up. A master’s degree gets you more pay but does not get you access to more jobs (other than if one decides to go into admin).
    – also, I think all students should show off their strengths – in our previous system, if a student was a great at computer programming, they would receive no mention unless they had the highest GPA. Now, this student would be recognized in front of all their peers for their excellence in computer programming.
    Data- I have no data stating that children are “smarter” than before (although science tells us that each generation becomes more advanced – ie. technology) – not even sure what this would mean unless we looked at standardized test scores – if we do that , you will notice that students from BC are in the top 5 (PISA) in the world for math and reading. I can tell you that this generation of students are smarter in areas that did not exist before – our children are not very smart at developing old technology but still read well and are more advanced at numerical problem solving (as this was less of a focus when we were in school).
    You have not mentioned your kids but unless you have spent time in a school, you would not know the high level of learning that takes place. To put it down as “stupider” shows the lack of awareness around the new pedagogy and learning. (we could go on about brain scans and learning but I won’t here – feel free to look it up). We are moving away from memorization of standardized facts to one that is focused on actual learning and growth.
    Since you brought up Freud, I will bring up John Dewey – now there is a guy that got education and student learning. Unfortunately, nobody listened – however, we are now implementing many of his ideas.

    We can agree to disagree on this topic. My school is thriving since we have made the move away from awards (we still have competition!!!) so we are proof that it works – our kids that have moved on to the high school are doing well too. There are other schools doing the same and seeing great success. I hope you read further as I describe our journey.

  12. So your theory is again different from Rick Lavoie’s opinion of calling for the abolishment of rewards systems, in the fact you are proposing at looking to change the reward system rather than remove it? This makes more sense than what the article was saying and the comments made by other posters.

    If this is what you are proposing I can accept that. What I can not accept is removing a child from something as important as competition. I believe this important in the development of the fight or flight response. I see you also have similar beliefs. What I see you are trying to say is rather than say you get a cookie every time you get a good grade you are trying to teach the sense of accomplishment is a much fuller and complete reward? This I can live with but unfortunately we are all human beings and the occassionaly does have to be some sort of physical reward at the end whether it be a prize or what not.

    I feel that with academic awards in praticular it is a double edged sword.On one hand the children usually winning the academic awards are picked on through out school as you have seen as a teacher and a student. The best academic doesnt get you friends, but the best athlete is always popular. This is why I wonder if it is important to keep rewards for best at an academic subject. On the other hand these awards may not seem important until you go to get into a larger school or private school. I know what happens in elementary school has little effect on this but it can be helpful in shaping children to understand the nature of the competition.

    I unfortunately can not see myself working completely in the school system. It agrevates me a great deal to see teachers (not you or the teachers you know, more the union) hold children hostage and lie about what its really about. I understand the importance of education as I have spent 10 years in post secondary schooling. I feel more fault has to be put on the administration itself as well as the students.

    Now on the other hand we also need negative rewards also known as negative re-enforcement. These allow students to see the results of poor decissions and beingmade accountable for their actions. I think this is what needs to be taught in relationship to what you propose and I am certain you can agree with that.

    Also with motivation several articles I have read give one major example on motivational problems in elementary schools. I am sure you are aware that boys respond much differently to the female voice than girls do. A boy that is 8 has a hard time focussing on female teachers voice. This can cause much of the message to be lost in the medium. Unfortunately that boy may be branded with adhd or some other mental disorder. I am not sure that this can be remedied other than by separating classes into boys learn from men and girls learn from females. With elementary schools being about 90% female teachers you can see why its much harder to motivate male students especially in early child hood.

    I think with the motivation topic it is much wider than just rewards for good deeds or jobs.

  13. I think you have summed it up well. I admire your passion around this area. Talk to you again some time. Thanks for commenting and keeping this conversation going. Go Canucks! 🙂

  14. I just got home from year end rewards. My daughter is hard of hearing. We have worked 2 hours eveynight to stay abreast of the work and she got a and b’s… She recieved one award in 1.5 hours. We were both crushed.. She was so broken hearted.. The message..Only the “perfect” get the rewards here while the those that WORKED their tails off slouch in the back row crushed.. I think something is wrong here when teachers say they care and send these types of messages. The same kids over and over were brought up.. Not just my child hurt you could see those faces its no wonder they give up and quit..

  15. If I can add to this bit of debating with perhaps another question/thought? Do you think that competition at the elementary school level is more advantageous than the secondary level? I think the premise that life itself is a competition is great, but if we prepare students in elem school for this (goal setting: “I want to be the best at what I do” and reflection: “I didn’t win. Next time I will do this”) we maybe wouldn’t have to be so “pick me up” in the secondary level? My personal feelings on this is that if institutions hand out so many different awards with mystical names (“Best Lunchroom Attendance”) we water down the meaning of the recognition. In secondary schools now, especially in urban or low-income communities, the thought process of a middle or high schooler is “why bother, I’m not good enough”. We as teachers can change it by speaking praise to them daily, but to have recognition from someone outside of their every day is still important. But would that be the same if we started this recognition in elementary grades? Would there that same thought process / need for all of that recognition?

    I’ve recently morphed from a K-12 educator to an adult educator, and most of the students I see who either dropped out of school or learned nothing in their classes (from various generations) all have the same mentality: “I wasn’t the best, so I did something else”. Clearly, the “something else” can be good (go to trade school, get lots of experience, have a family) or bad (go to jail, mooch of my parents, join a gang). On some level (primal, perhaps?) that’s a valid response. Some people are not going to be the best. But they should still be presented better options – and they should be taught that skill (in my opinion) as they learn to reason / at the elementary level.

    I guess my thoughts agree with keeping competition a part of the classroom – so long as a student makes a choice (sets a goal, however lofty or girly that sounds), decides what to do, and has feedback in response to whether they win or lose. Because some days we all win, and sometimes we all lose. Our jobs are to teach folks how to deal with that, right?

  16. Ashley – I believe that each student should compete against himself/herself and aim for a personal best. At 55 years of age, I entered my first half-marathon. I had 3 goals – to finish, not to finish last, and to run every step. I did all 3, so did I win or lose that day. I won! Also, I willingly entered that competition. Kids do not willingly enter classroom competitions, and they do not compete against others of equal ability. There is an inherent mismatch in classroom competitions, and it is unfair to force kids into them at any age.

  17. Sue – first things first, CONGRATS on completing a half-marathon!! I’ve been saying I want to do that for two years now, and yet, here I sit. :o) Bravo!

    I think that I agree with you – students should have the choice to compete. More so I agree with celebrating a personal best over the need to be THE best.

    But if we celebrate at a young age the accomplishments of all — this student did x, y, and z (or, this student spent 2 hours each evening making sure her disability was NOT a hinderance to her learning — way to go Teresa&daughter), would there even be a need for award ceremonies in high school? If we really are a country that celebrates hard work and meritocracy – wouldn’t that hard work stand on its own (i.e. volunteer work, extra curriculars, etc?)? The point I think I’m trying to make, is that the foundation for competition is to be the best – at something/anything – and that is an important motivator. But knowing what to do when you lose, or what to do next time, or how to pick others up is a really important lesson that we might lose if we eliminate that altogether.

    How might we teach children how to respond to those failures or let downs if there is no competition (or they choose not to compete?)?

  18. Learning is all about failures. I fail every day as a teacher, student, and administrator. I am not against all competition but I think we rely on it way too much to “teach kids how to lose”. If we create an environment that encourages going beyond our comfort zone (and often failing) the most important lessons occur. We need to teach kids (and help them discover) what to do when they have tried something, it didn’t work and now they don’t know what to do.

    Many kids have been taught they cannot win in so many aspects of life before they even get to school. If life teaches so much competition, as many have stated in the comments, maybe we should teach more collaboration – as this might be something that is taught less outside of school?

    Great thoughts by all and thank you, Teresa, for bringing a personal story to the conversation.

  19. Strangely this idea of competition in elementary school has been on my mind a lot these days. Our kids are forever competing for everything! A few years ago our elementary school had character trait awards (complete with a monthly assembly where a student was nominated for demonstrating empathy, perseverance, honest etc) where the teacher in many cases chose the recipient. You can imagine the same kids get one award each year and the same kids don’t…it was terrible.

    I am now concerned about elementary school sports. Kids compete as early as 9 for a spot on a school team where in many cases only 25-50% of the kids that try out are selected. That means the rest don’t play – at all! In many cases it is the same kids that play every sport and the same kids who try out again and again and but never make it. Let me be clear, these kids signed up as they wanted to play, learn a sport, have fun and be active. And yes, they want the feeling of competing… on a team. As a parent I’m concerned that in something as important as sports where kids learn teamwork, develop social skills in a smaller group and develop a love for lifelong physical development that the school system is so underdeveloped in recognizing the importance of an all inclusive extra-curricular sports program. I hear the argument that competition is good – and yes it is. However, creating a comprehensive internal school sports program within the school where 100% of students that sign-up are included will still allow for competition. Healthy competition without all the trophies, banners or egos. It saddens me that, as a society, we think it is ok to tell kids at such a young age, who haven’t even had the chance to develop skills or interests yet that they aren’t good at something. For a shy kid who finally decided to try – the impact could be tremendous.

    Chris – I found this article that I think you might find very interesting…http://www.kidsfirstsoccer.com/PDF/Elementary-School-Sport-Competition-DF-2003.pdf

    • This is a very important link to make. Teaching is all about skill development. Yes, there is a role for competition but when students are ready and when they have a voice in whether to compete or not. Education should not be a zero-sum game. Adults rarely are thrown into a competition without choice. In sports, I choose to compete. I choose which jobs I will apply for. I realize some have much less choice than me but when I hear about “preparing kids for the real world”, why does this have to happen in elementary schools? We don’t teach kids to drive in elementary schools knowing they will need it in the “real world”… we teach them age appropriate skills. Just like in sports, one of our goals should be to “keep kids in the game” by creating a love of sports… and in schools, a love of learning. We don’t do this by giving out awards to a select few kids. Thanks for the article – I will check it out! I know Soccer Canada is doing a lot of work with the long term skill development plan… and I am a huge fan of this!

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