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Chapter 20: Examining the Use of Competition in the Classroom

From Transformative Classroom Management. By John Shindler. ©Allyn Bacon Pub.

Reproduction is unlawful without permission


In this Chapter:

·         Defining Competition

·         Likely Consequences and Benefits of Competition

·         Healthy vs. Unhealthy Competition

·         Classroom Applications

·         Competition in the Transformative Classroom


When we were students, some of us had positive experience with competition, while others had experiences that were more often painful or at best not very enjoyable.  As adults, we commonly take that view of competition that we formed when we were students ourselves, and then apply it to what we believe is appropriate and right for our students and/or children; consequently, we may be operating from unexamined assumptions. As a result, it is possible that our students are paying the price for our lack of awareness. Therefore, it may be instructive to consider the effects of competition as objectively as is possible, as we try to find an appropriate place for it in our classroom.


In this chapter we examine the nature of competition as well as its place in the classroom. We will distinguish what could be considered the “healthier” forms of competition from those that are less healthy, and examine if and when it can be incorporated into the transformative classroom.



Chapter Reflection 20-a: Recall your experiences of competition as a student. What is your association with it as a result? How does your perception vary from that of others you know? How has your perception affected the way you use (or plan to use) competition in your classroom.



Defining Competition:

The definition of human competition is a contest in which there are two or more people engage in a contest where typically only one or a few participants will win and others will not (Webster, 2007).  By definition competition exists when there is a scarcity of a desired outcome. Individuals and/or groups are then in a position that they must vie for the attainment of that outcome. For example in team athletics, two teams engage in a sport for the purpose of winning.


It is partially true that the world is competitive. It is difficult to avoid competition entirely in life. But it is also true that for the most part, competition in life is a self-imposed or at least self-selected condition.  We can just as easily live an existence defined more by collaborative and self-referential goals than by competition with others. So to say that the “real world” is inherently competitive is for the most part a myth. Moreover, to say that we are preparing students for the real world by putting them in artificially constructed competitive situations is to impose our world-view on them. In fact, one could argue that in a broad sense, collectively, we as educators create a more or less competitive future world by the way we encourage our students to think and treat one another. In other words, if we create a more cooperative environment in our schools we create the likelihood of a more cooperative future world, whereas, if we create more competitive environments, we create a more competitive world in the future.



Chapter Reflection 20-b: In your ideal world, what is the role of competition? Keep this answer in mind as you reflect on the role that you want competition to play in the world of your classroom.



The Affect Competition Has on any Situation

When we introduce the competitive element into a situation, we find that in essence it creates a sense of external urgency and drama. Competition brings a variable into the equation that shifts the participants’ attention from the task itself to attention to the cost of their performance in the task. For example, if the task were to assemble a model airplane, we could make it into a competition declaring the model making activity a race to see who could finish the task first. Consider how this competitive element changes the participants’ thinking. The sense of urgency (for anyone who cares about winning, and that may not be everyone) is elevated to some degree. An external drama is now introduced. The purpose of the activity inherently shifts away from the learning goals (i.e., engagement in making sense of the various elements of the process and the attempt to interpret and perform a quality effort to goals related) to efficiency, speed and the outcome relative to others. As a result the activity becomes less something in which to engage in and of itself and becomes more a means to an end (winning). The process or at least reflecting on the process of the task becomes less important than the product. For the most part, we can see this change in focus occurring no matter what the teacher may say either to encourage or to discourage it. The structure by its nature encourages the shift in the attitude of the participant.



Chapter Reflection 20-c: Recall a situation where you or someone else was involved in a race to complete a task. Was there more mistakes being made as a result? Was the quality of the performance better or worse? How do you explain your observations?



Introducing competition into the context of a group efforts, we can see much of the same shift in attitude occurring. When competitive goals are present, the group will tend to place an increased value on the outcome of the effort and decrease their focus on the process. In other words, they will increase the attention that is placed upon doing what it takes to win, and decrease the attention placed upon learning for its own sake. In addition the competitive element will have an effect on the group dynamics as well. For example, suppose that we ask groups to work in teams to assemble model airplanes, and set up a reward for the group that finishes first or creates the best product. If we contrast this competitive condition to a purely collaborative condition, the likely result will be that group members will change the way they regard one another. The competitive condition encourages one to view their fellow group members less as peers or a vehicle for learning, and more those to be used to reach the goal. Such behaviors as dialogue and reflection are useful in the collaborative condition, whereas in the competitive condition, they often slow the process and diffuse the group’s focus. In a collaborative condition divergent ideas can usually be explored without penalty, whereas when we introduce the element of competition it creates a disincentive to dialogue, or reflect any more than is necessary to accomplish the task.


In a collaborative condition there is no disincentive to involve the efforts of the less dominant and/or competent members of the group. In the competitive condition however, it is likely that some combination of personality dominance and individual level of competence will define the values of the process, inevitably marginalizing weaker and less competent team members. Even with good will and/or good intentions being present at the beginning of the process, these trends are likely as the structural incentive in a competitive condition itself will inherently promote both a shift in the focus of the task and the nature of the team dynamics.



Chapter Reflection 20-d: Recall your own experience in group to group competition. What was the attitude of the others? Did everyone in the group enjoy the experience (even on a winning team)? If not, why not?



A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Use of Competition

If we were to compare the potential benefits of competition to the potential costs, we find that there are a good number of reasons to be cautious about using competition. While competition can instantly infuse fun and drama into the equation, there is a cost. Aside from the shift from process to product focus described above, there are addition likely consequences such as promoting a fear of failure and undermines the students’ intrinsic motivation. Figure 20.1 outlines this cost benefit analysis.


Figure 20.1 Likely Consequences and Potential Benefits of Competition

Likely Consequences of Competition:

§         Promotes a shift from means/process to ends/products

§         Brings an external dimension into the equation, and weakens the students’ intrinsic motivation.

§         Heightens the level of anxiety/threat

§         Promotes a tendency to take on a mentality defined by “fear of failure” (and consequently winning becomes the way to relieve the anxious condition) and consequently a “helpless pattern.”

§         In groups:

o        Shifts the emphasis from quality relationships to effective relationships

o        Decreases incentive to think reflectively or divergently

o        Accentuates the effects of existing social hierarchy and ability levels

o        Decreases the sense of bond generally among groups (i.e., community) and temporarily increases the bond within the winning group.


Potential Benefits of Competition:

§         Increases the level of anxiety/threat for a performance (pressure may potentially help refine skill given a more demanding performance context).

§         Can provide a dimension that can potentially reinforce group interdependence an/or team skills.

§         Can potentially increase the level of “fun” and/or drama in an activity.



Chapter Reflection 20-e: Reflect on the costs and benefits of competition listed above. In your opinion does one list outweigh the other?



While the list of potential costs related to competition is more substantial than its list of potential benefits, the power of its effect makes its use very tempting. Typically, we find that little else will get a group of young people more energized than when we introduce competition into the equation.  But like the use of any of the other extrinsically motivating practices, the short-term benefits can mask the long term detrimental effect.  As is necessary when we consider the use of extrinsic rewards or other “loaded” strategies, we need to be intentional and careful in our use of competition. 


Use of Competition in the Classroom:

There are those that subscribe to position that there is no such thing as “healthy classroom competition. Yet, while it can be debated whether competition should be incorporated in schools at all, the fact is that it is a prevalent practice and will likely be so for some time. Therefore it is useful to distinguish “healthier” forms of competition from those that are less healthy. There are a few principles to consider when judging whether a competitive classroom situation is more or less beneficial.


First, competitions for valuable outcomes will have more detrimental effects on a class than competitions for trivial and/or symbolic outcome. There are essentially three types of “valuable/real” outcomes. They are a) material things of value - this includes privileges that have a substantive impact, b) the teacher’s conspicuous and/or lasting affection, and c) recorded grades. When we give students a meaningful reward for winning, we make the winning what is important, and we make the statement that students should care at least as much about getting the reward as they do about the quality of their effort. Recalling our discussion of motivation in Chapter 7, when we do this we have drawn the intrinsic motivation out of the situation by introducing an extrinsic reward.


Second, the shorter the life of the competition the more likely it is to have a beneficial effect. The length of the contest will increase its sense of prominence and decrease its sense of intensity and fun – both undesirable effects. For example, if we keep track of the number of books each student has read over the course of the semester and post the tally on a chart on the wall of the classroom, the initial effect may be an increased sense of motivation to read books. Therefore, we initially might assume that our strategy has been effective. However, as the contest goes on, we will notice that students will increasingly read books just for the sake of the contest, and will have an incentive to falsify the number of books that they have read. Moreover, over time we will notice that the competition is becoming less fun and increasingly more of a burden. At the end of the year, the competition will have produced essentially one somewhat happy and very relieved student, many students who feel unhappy about losing, a good number who will feel a little unhappy but highly relieved that the chart is no longer being held over their head and shaming them.


Third, the leader of the competition needs to place a conspicuous emphasis on the process over the product. If the winning is the point, the students will take on a “do what it takes” attitude.  If the students are encouraged to value the process, they will feel justified stay focused on the learning outcome and feel assured that it is okay to put their attention into quality as the goal. However, enabling this mindset is only possible when the context itself does not place so much value on winning that the leader’s emphasis falls on deaf ears. Therefore the two first principles become prerequisite.


When taken together we could conclude that the most healthy and beneficial competitions are those that are undertaken for exclusively symbolic value (e.g., “good job you won” “polite applause for the winners” “congratulations to group four they came up with some great ideas and won the contest.”), are short and sweet, are characterized by all participants feeling like they have a chance to win, and have the process and quality of work being given conspicuous value, and the product of the winning given a conspicuously low level of importance. Figure 20.2 lists the principles that create more or less healthy competitive contexts.


Figure 20.2 Distinguishing Healthier from Unhealthy Competition

§         In Healthy Competition

o        The goal is primarily fun.

o        The competitive goals is not “valuable/real.” And it is characterized that way.

o        The learning and/or growth goal is conspicuously characterized as valuable.

o        The competition has a short duration and is characterized by high energy.

o        There is no long-term effect from the episode.

o        All individuals or groups see a reasonable change of winning.

o        The students all firmly understand points 1-5 above.

o        Examples include: Trivial contests, short-term competitions for a solely symbolic reward, lighthearted challenges between groups where there is no reward


§         In Unhealthy Competition

o        It feels real. The winners and losers will be affected.

o        The competitive goal/reward is “valuable/real,” and is characterized that way.

o        The learning task is characterized as a means to an end (winning the competition).

o        Winners are able to use their victory as social or educational capital at a later time.

o        Competition implicitly or explicitly rewards the advantaged students.

o        Over time students develop an increasingly “competitive mindset.”

o        Examples include: Long-term point systems, competition for grades, grading on a curve, playing favorites, Awards for skill related performance.




Chapter Reflection 20-f: Recall the last classroom competition that you observed. Given the list above, would you classify it as a healthy or unhealthy competition?



What About a Little Bit of Competition for Meaningful Outcomes? Isn’t it Okay Sometimes?

It is highly likely that there are at this point readers who are thinking to themselves “but I use competition for meaningful outcomes and I don’t see any problems with it. The winners are happy and it seems like it makes the losers want to try harder so that they can be winners in the future.”


The full effect of an “unhealthy” competitive experience may not be apparent on the surface or immediately. In fact, it may appear like it has had a rather desirable influence on the students. Vockell (2004) points out that competition helps some students (i.e., the winners) feel an enhanced sense of self-esteem by experiencing a favorable comparison. That is, they feel better about themselves because they came out ahead of someone else. One of the problems with this source of satisfaction is that it leads quickly to the fear that in the future one may not come out on top - in other words, a “fear of failure.”  In fact, self-esteem based on comparison is not true self esteem (as discussed in Chapter 8). It is a fragile ego construction. The best it can lead to is a temporary experience of relief from feeling like a failure. Ultimately it leads to loss of intrinsic motivation as a result of the student competing for the external reinforcement (i.e., the prize, the validation, the favorable comparison) and defining themselves by their personal “win-loss record.”


When the student sees his/her school performance as a contest, it leads increasingly to what Dweck (2000) refers to as a “helpless pattern.” As discussed in Chapter 8, the helpless pattern develops as a result of the student perceiving himself/herself as having a fixed quantity of ability and therefore needing to prove that they are adequate relative to others.  While on the surface what may appear as students who are motivated to perform, is more likely actually evidence of students motivated to avoid the pain of feeling inadequate and inferior.  The development of this helpless pattern promotes a decrease in internal motivation, a decreased value for growth as a goal, and decreased resilience to challenging situations. So initially we may see students who are energized by the competitive challenge (out of fear of failure, or a desire to enhance their self image by accomplishing a favorable comparison to others), however, we will eventually get student who put in less and less effort on the task, quit when things get difficult, and lose interest in learning unless it includes the drama that the competitive element brings (i.e., much the same way that the gambling addict needs to play for money to be able to take an interest in playing the game.)



Chapter Reflection 20-g: Reflect on the most desirable state of mind of those who need to perform successfully in highly competitive situations. In some situations, in which the contest is about brute strength, there are occasions when fear and anger can create a desired effect. Yet, by and large competitive performance requires the execution of skills and strategy. Take for example professional golf. When high performing players were asked to explain what they were thinking in a given pressure situation, the most common answer is that they were trying to keep their attention in the moment and resist the temptation to attend to the external stimuli. But as we know, they are not always successful in doing so. When a player does fail to stay in the moment and begins to shift their thinking from each shot to an awareness of their performance relative to the others on the course and/or relative to a negative event in their past, the common result is poor play. Commonly this takes the form of a breakdown and/or what is referred to as “choking.” The top performers such as Tiger Woods have learned to discipline their minds to focus only on the moment and enjoy the process. They know that thinking in terms of comparisons (i.e., competitively) will lead to less effective performance as well as mental distress and less enjoyment of their job.



Classroom Applications of Competition

For what age levels is competition appropriate? The answer is that it is more appropriate as students get more mature, but little or none of it is appropriate for very young children. There is no real justification for using more than a minimal amount of competition in the K-3 classroom. At this age it has no value or necessity. In the K-3 classroom, our task is to help students form a “success psychology.”  Competition has very little value in our efforts to do this and will much more likely work against this goal. For grades 3-6 a small amount of healthy competition can be justified. Students at this age are old enough to separate themselves from their outcomes within competitive tasks, if we help and support them in doing so. Therefore a taste of healthy competition in schools can help the intermediate age student make sense of and navigate the other competitive contexts in which they may find themselves. After 7th grade, students are mature enough to understand many of the natural tendencies, both healthy and unhealthy, that will want to emerge from within them during the competitive context. Therefore a reasonable amount of healthy competition, led by an adult who helps the students remain intentional and aware can be justified from middle school on.


We might think of competition in the classroom as we do a timed or public performance – it raises the level of threat in a situation. When is that a good thing? Typically, when the skill or knowledge being performed is well-formed and internalized and/or it is becoming rusty. When is it a bad thing? When the students are still learning the skill and need to put conscious attention into it. When one is learning a new skill he/she needs to have a high support and low threat situation. It is only when we have mastered a skill or set of knowledge that it is useful to test it in a competitive, timed, or publicly displayed context.


As we examine some common applications of competition in the classroom, we can see that some would best be characterized as entirely unhealthy, while others can vary from more to less healthy depending on how they are designed and led.


§         Grading on a Curve. Ever fewer teachers subscribe to the use of normative grading (i.e., grading on a curve). This is an encouraging trend, as it is difficult to find any support that it is motivational or necessary. Pitting one student against another for grades has consistently been shown to have serious ill-effects (Cropper, 1998; Lam, Yim, Law & Cheung, 2004; Kohn, 1986). Moreover, the amount of motivation that it does produce is rather limited and less powerful than other social structures such as cooperation (Johnson & Johnson, 1974, 1988).



Chapter Reflection 20-h: Have you ever blanked out in a competitive condition? When the stakes have been high for a test or public performance, have you ever found yourself forgetting what to do or say? Test anxiety is a byproduct of the competitive factor. Our consciousness shifts from the task to the cost of the performance of the task and we blank out. The creative mind has been shut down. What is left is a mental defense responding to a threat condition. While this emotional response may be effective at producing fight or flight chemicals in the body in the case where we must engage a crisis of survival, it is not very useful when we are trying to think clearly and calmly. To test this principle, consider how you performed the same task in a non-threatening context at another time. Was your mind more at ease and thus more effective?



§         Playing favorites, Praise and Disappointment. It may not appear on the surface to create a competitive condition, but when we give a differential level of liking, personal praise (see Ch. 8), or its opposite - personal disappointment, we are creating a subtle form of classroom competition. In a sense, when we do this we are saying that there is some criteria that we use to decide whom to show more affection and admiration. Showing differential levels of liking will have the effect of essentially an emotional token economy. All students lose in the long run in this kind of environment. While the favorites may initially feel fortunate, however, along with those that have been un-favored, they are being encouraged toward an external locus of control and a failure psychology. Ultimately this type of competitive emotional climate can be even more harmful than creating a competitive performance environment.



Chapter Reflection 20.i – Reflect on your experience as a student. Can you think of teacher behaviors other than games and normative grading that caused you to think of yourself as being in competition or to comparison of yourself in relation to the other students in the class? What were they?



§         Table Points and Group-Group Competition for Points. In some cases, using games that result in group points can be a useful tool to help bring a heightened level of attention and importance to certain group skills and can help clarify behavioral expectations.  For example, during the first week of school, we might give points to groups for being ready, listening, demonstrating intra-group cooperation, exhibiting or going beyond the class expectations, etc. As a result, this practice can fall in the healthy column, if it is done thoughtfully and deliberately. However, beware of the pitfalls. Above all be clear about what behavior leads to what outcome. Therefore, it is important to make a clear distinction among the following: a) that which is graded academically, b) that which is rewarded/graded for investment in the process/participation, and c) that which is given points. Even if these distinctions exist, they can be difficult for some students to interpret. So first, we need to make sure that we keep these areas separate and distinct, and second, be very clear and conspicuous with our students what system is leading to what.. As discussed in Chapter 22, assessing participation and process can be a very sound strategy. However, this assessment information should never be used as part of a competition or a game. For example, if we give group points for quality process investment and/or cooperation and then include these assessments as part of a group grade for a project, we need to keep those points separate from any points that we give for a group competitive game. We can do both – the game and the participation assessment, however, we just need to keep them entirely separate. If not, we can destroy the sense of reliability and trust in our formal participation assessment system, and our game will be a lot less fun as students will be confused about the purpose and impact. In Figure 20.3 a purposeful and effective use of table points is contrasted to an accidental and ineffective system.


Figure 20.3: Comparison of a Healthy vs. Unhealthy Classroom Points Competition System

Accidental/Unhealthy Use of Competition – Group Table Points

Intentional/Healthy Use of Competition for Group Table Points

Teams are randomly selected and will be in place for a long period of time.

Teams are selected to be representative and evenly matched, and are changed every couple days or weekly at the very latest.

A reward is given to the team that wins at the end of the competition that most students feel is of real and meaningful value (i.e., a prize, a party, a substantial privilege such as not having to do an assignment (which is a counterproductive reward in and of itself, as discussed in ch.7).

There is no talk of a reward. Teams are just competing for abstract “points.”

The teacher gives points for performances where some students have an advantage, such as intelligence, background knowledge, culturally biased knowledge, physical ability, etc.

The teacher gives points for a variety of things that are often trivial, sometimes connected to the content of the class, and frequently related to the demonstration of behavioral expectations (i.e., things over which students have complete control). For example, when the teacher sees one group cooperating effectively, they would (without warning and only minimal recognition) give that team a point. Conversely, when the teacher observed a group or two that was being selfish and making a poor effort investment, they may give the other groups a point who are making a quality effort. The recognition is always on the positive. The negative is only recognized as the absence of valuable behavior.

The points are counted at the end of each day and the team who is in the lead is given a great deal of affirmation. The teams who are not in the lead are given a bit of shame for being behind and any team who is far behind is teased.

Once in a while the teacher points to the point totals, but puts most of their verbal energy into the improvement of the quality of the behavior in the class. The teacher helps the students recognize that their efforts to learn how to collectively function are paying off, to the mutual benefit of the class.


Predictably there will be a team or two who will be out of the running in the point standings, and they will be very aware of it. Predictably, they begin to blame and resent one another. As the competition goes on they will increasingly lose interest in the game and begin to make only a minimal effort or even possibly lose on purpose as a means to exerting a sense of power over the situation. They will increasingly grow in their resentment of the team that is winning and the teacher.

The competition is not held up as a substantive means to personal satisfaction for the students. So while they are interested in the outcome and feel a sense of drama, they do not feel substantially attached to the outcome. The teacher has been very intentional about helping them recognize the many other meaningful outcomes that are taking place in the class that are of importance, such as the individual and collective growth of the class.



The competition becomes a source of pain for the teams that are far behind as it drags on. For the teams in the lead it is a source of a feeling of entitlement, superiority, and fear of losing. . While it maintains some power to modify behavior, this power decreases daily, and it is related primarily to a desire to avoid pain.

The completion is changed and modified frequently so it never gets stale and all teams feel that they have a chance to come back and win. Since the teacher has never made a big deal of winning, the team in the lead does not fear losing what is essentially only a symbolic reward. After a couple of weeks the teacher ends the competitions.


Competition is used throughout the whole year and the importance of it is increasingly emphasized. This is necessary because, while the students do not realize it, they are losing interest, because there is nothing inherently satisfying about the competition and the reward is not worth being so slavish to the procedures.

Competition is brought back once in a while for brief episodes, but is never given any place of importance.

See the next section – Competition in the Transformative Classroom.


·         Knowledge bowl, Trivia, Jeopardy and/or Mock Quiz Show Games. If we design a game for our students to play that includes academic content,  it has the potential to be fun and help reinforce certain skills and content, however, we need to keep in mind the principles for a healthy competition. For example, the use of a jeopardy-like game, or a team knowledge bowl competition to review for tests can raise the level of interest and excitement while accomplishing essentially the same degree of content processing. But if the outcome of the game becomes part of what is formally graded, the competition goes from the healthy to the unhealthy column.  Let us compare two scenarios, one in which the outcome translates into each students formal grade and a more healthy application in which it does not.


In a healthy use scenario, we might divide the class into 4 groups and have students work together to answer questions related to the content of any upcoming exam. The content would be familiar and the competition would act as a means of testing the degree to which the students could retrieve the information under pressure. The purpose would be clearly stated as a form of preparation for an exam. At the end of the competition the teacher would want to recognize the efforts of each team and ask the teams to offer the winning team their congratulations and polite applause. After this recognition of effort, it would be effective for us to make a statement related to what the knowledge level during the competition indicated about the assessment of readiness of the group. In this scenario, the competition is simply a means, the desired end is the learning and the fun.


In an unhealthy scenario, the one might start the same way, by dividing the class into 4 groups. But as soon as we tell the class that the competition has a meaningful cost (the grade for the day in this case), things will change. One of the first changes will be that the students will become conspicuously obsessed with fairness, the rules and the appearance of cheating and/or any sign of favoritism by the teacher. A great deal of our energy will need to be spent putting down angry demonstrations when any event is perceived by students to have been unfair. As discussed earlier, the members of each team will be encouraged by the competitive structure to put aside a  democratic and egalitarian mentality and make judgments about how best to win. One’s team members become seen less as participants in a learning activity and become obstacles to achieving a valued outcome (winning). When the game is over, it is likely that the students will walk away with the primary lessons learned being related to the fairness of the game, the teacher’s responsibility for making the game and the teams fair, and ultimately their degree of happiness or unhappiness related to the outcome. What was learned about the content or group cooperation will likely take on a much less meaningful significance. If we continue to use the same format, these trends will become strengthened. Over time the students will begin to associate us increasingly less with fun and more with the cause of their dissatisfaction. The bickering and complaining will start as soon as the teams are created. Moreover, the students will become increasingly impatient with low-ability members of their teams. The hostility within those that are embarrassed during the activity will likely come out in retribution in contexts other than the content review game.  Those that are resentful of losing, due to what they perceive as the performance of the other members of their team, will grow in their dislike of those they see as the cause of keeping them from obtaining the goal of a desirable daily grade. In this scenario it is tempting to blame the level of character in the students, when the real culprit is the structural design of the competitive activity itself.



Chapter Reflection 20-j: How would you feel at the end of a review activity if the teacher gave daily grades depending on how well your team did? What would change in your attitude the next time you played?



The Place of Competition in the Transformative Classroom

A thoughtful and intentional use of competition has its place in the transformative classroom. Competitive contexts offer learning and growth opportunities that are unique. The primary goal in the transformative classroom is to help students become familiar with the feelings and tendencies that will want to emerge from within, and take a thoughtful and intentional approach to their participation within the competitive context. Teaching students how to deal with competition could be compared to sex education. In doing so, we are not endorsing any behavior, but it assumes that the student may likely find themselves in a situation where knowledge and a proactive mindset to this area could be valuable, so they should have a healthy and informed approach to it.


In most cases, the competitive context brings out feelings in students that they think are natural. In a sense, these feelings are natural, however, they are not going to lead to a feeling of natural happiness and peace (i.e., the natural condition). Students should be helped to see the feelings that competition brings out as normal and predicable, but not necessary. Feelings such as worrying about losing, needing to win to feel good about oneself, or needing the drama of the competition to feel interested, or being so worried about the outcome that one losses focus on the process, are all normal but inevitably dysfunctional habits of mind. We need to therefore help our students recognize these normal tendencies and instead use more functional thinking to guide their choices and define their state of mind during a competitive experience.


To accomplish this “competition education,” we need to incorporate three factors. First, we need to make sure that all competitive contexts are healthy as defined by Figure 20.b. If we create unhealthy contexts (e.g., we get excited about or give meaningful rewards to the winners or we place a great deal of emphasis on the outcome as being what is important) we will create confusing messages to the students, and undermine our results. Second, we need to help students be aware of their competitive feelings in low stakes contexts. Third, we need to help our students test their ability to stay conscious and intentional in higher stakes competitive situations.


Low stakes competition includes situations such as when we tell the students that we are “looking for a ready group,” when students are engaged in doing group presentations, or when we have them take part in small-scale competitive games. During these low-threat competitive contexts we need to be clear about the purpose of the competition (i.e., fun and learning, and not winning) and help students pay attention to what is going on internally. When it comes to games we might be very direct, making the statement to the class, “If we can play these games for fun, we will keep playing them. If we start worrying about who wins or loses, or we start doing sloppy work to be done first, we need to stop doing them.” If, as suggested in Chapter 12, we give minor privileges (e.g., getting to go line up first)  to groups or individuals for being “ready” early, we need to make it clear that we all need to be “ready,” that it helps the whole class, and we are just using the game to emphasize that an important collective skill. Our message to students may be “This is good practice for games in life, we are all capable of being the first one’s ready, if your group is ready first, great, if not, you made a good effort that helps us all. So we all win when we try our best.”



Chapter Reflection 20 – k: Recall our discussion of the 1-Style Classroom in Chapter 12. If we are trying to help students become self directed, we may want to wean them off behavioral expectation competitions such as looking for the “ready group” when we see the behavior become internalized and consistently demonstrated. We can substitute positive recognitions and then ultimately group appreciation and recognition as the class develops as a community.



As we raise the level of competitive energy, we need to help the students keep in mind that the reason that we are using the skills that we have developed in a competitive context, is not to see who is better, but to see how well each of us does with a competitive learning environment. We are primarily testing our characters, and only secondarily testing our skills. We need to help them see that we are helping them learn how to perform under pressure, and learn that one can actually perform in high stakes contexts without the need to feel pressured, anxious, or like their self-esteem is attached to the outcome.


As we help students grow in their understanding of how to take part in competition without losing awareness of what will lead to the most intentional, functional and productive outcome, we need to be very specific and pro-active in the messages that we send and the consequences that we deliver. In each competitive situation, we might keep in mind the following: a) potential problems that might come up, b) the messages that we would want to send to resolve and bring awareness to those problems, and c) the actions that we will take if we need to if, students cannot do it on their own.


Below are a few of the potential problems that may arise as students learn to be effective within competitive contexts, some of the messages that we would want to send as a result, and possible actions that we may need to take to help reinforce the messages.


Potential Student Problem 1: We notice students being tentative and anxious – showing that they are working in part out of a fear of failure.


Intentional Teacher Counter-Message: When the students take on a mindset of a fear of failure, we need to first bring their awareness to what they are thinking. We need to ask them if they are working from a desire to grow and learn (i.e., a mastery orientation) or a spending a lot of mental energy and attention on protecting their self-image (i.e., a helpless orientation). We will want to remind them that we are playing for fun, and what is important is what they learn. We need to tell them to stay in the moment, focus on the process and let the outcome take care of itself.


Possible Teacher Action: First, we need to be sure that we can back up what we are saying and the competition is not for meaningful stakes, the students are prepared for what we are asking them to do, and the we have not created an emotional climate that has glorified winning. Second, we need to send a message that we care about each student and want them to do well. We need to be the teacher not the judge, let them see us putting our attention into instruction, and supporting their efforts with that instruction.


Potential Student Problem 2: Students begin to put too much focus on the outcome/winning and lose sight of quality, cooperation, process, sportsmanship, and ethics, or become too concerned with fairness and cheating.


Intentional Teacher Counter-Message: When the students get too focused on the competitive element of the task, remind them that what is important is what they learn and how they treat one another. Remind them that the competition does not affect their grade or anything else that is important. If they are obsessed with fairness, help them use it as a means to becoming bigger than their situation. Explain to them that winners overcome adversity and don’t get sidetracked by bad calls, corrupt systems, bad breaks, etc. Help them see that this is good practice for life. Real victory is the ability to look back and like how we acted during the competition.


Possible Teacher Action It would be a good idea if your assessment system supported the message that what is being rewarded in the class is the process. Chapter 22 may be helpful in that area. If a team or individual does not show the ability to work in a competitive context without falling apart emotionally, blaming, cheating, or complaining excessively, a consequence is required. The best consequence in this case will most often be losing the opportunity to take part. Having a group or student sit out and reflect on their previous actions and the priorities that motivated them should be valuable. It may help to reflect along with them, if they are having trouble seeing where they are going wrong. But as always our message to them needs to be “I know that you will be able to do this eventually, relax, take a few deep breathes, think about it a while. During this past situation you were not able to show the level of self-discipline that we need to be able to take part. You are smart, capable and reflective, and you have a lot to contribute, so let’s work on this so you can join the group as soon as possible.”


Potential Student Problem 3: Things get too heated and students become too competitive and place too much value of winning. When this happens we can recognize that students are trying to enhance their egos and defend their self-images by winning, and while it is ultimately a never ending and losing battle, in this case the students have lost perspective and are following unhealthy instincts.


Intentional Teacher Counter-Message: When things get heated that is a clear sign that the students are letting their egos get too involved. We might begin by asking them a question such as “Hey gang, it is just a game remember? Ask yourself, what is it that is making you so competitive right now, is it the need to feel good about yourself by beating others or proving your worth? Look around, these are your friends, they will still love you and you will still love yourself when the game is over.” Help them stay in the moment and enjoy the process and recognize that peak performance comes from being completely in the moment and letting go of the outcome. Help them shift their goal to staying present and doing a good job with the quality of the relationships and performing the task, and away from the illusion that wanting to win will help you win and/or be happy and satisfied.


Possible Teacher Action: If the students cannot hear your redirection message because they are too immersed in the drama of trying to enhance their self-images by winning, you will need to simply withdraw the privilege of the competition. Our message to them at this point, will need to be that – “in this class, we compete to learn how to compete, when we cannot demonstrate that we are ready for it, we need to stop for a time and then try again when we are.” When the emotions are still fresh, an episode such as this may provide a powerful opportunity for the class to reflect on why it is so difficult for any of us not to get all tied-up in needing to win. However, if we have allowed the game to come to completion, this processing will not be as powerful. We need to let the class recognize the clear cause and effect significance in our action – “in this class we use competition to the degree that we are ready for it.”


In the transformative classroom, the feedback and positive recognitions are reserved entirely for process related performance and the quality of the participation. In the transformative class students learn that winning is not the point, and losing is not a big deal. Neither winning nor losing is meaningful. What is meaningful is what we learn about ourselves in the process, how we treat each other, what we learn about our skill level.



Chapter Reflection 20-l: Reflect on your role as the teacher/leader in the transformative class. While we may need to provide strong guidance and leadership as the group is learning to function, our goal should remain to let them learn to do it themselves. So avoid being in the role of referee or judge. Can you think of a teacher that you have seen that liked to be in the role of referee? What did the students learn as a result? Where did the anger and complains go when things went wrong?



Finally, we need to remember that, in the transformative class, games are for fun. In the transformative classroom games and competition provide both a learning opportunity and a chance to play. So what makes a game fun? First when the participants do not fear the potential consequences. So teaching students how to play without fear of failure or letting their egos become too involved is prerequisite. Second, students need to access the joy of the moment and have fun with the process. Involvement, challenge, adventure, suspense all can feel fun, if the student lets themselves and the situation supports fun over comparison. The influence of comparison will be a fun killer. Fun during a competitive context occurs when the participant sees the competition as the game, and the fleeting reality, and the learning, relationships, and self-respect as the lasting reality.



So we must approach the use of competition like it is toxic paint or an electric power tool. It can produce beautiful results, but unless we take great precautions the likelihood is that we will regret putting it in the hands of young people. If it seems harmless, it is simply because we are not perceiving the threat clearly. And while no one is going to sue us for promoting a fear of failure like they would if we allowed a student to injure themselves with a power tool, we need to be no less safely conscious.


In the next chapter, we will examine the sibling of unhealthy competition - the use systematic public shaming in the form of a deficit model behavioral system. In much the same way as competition can motivate by fear of failure, deficit models motivate by a fear of experiencing guilt and shame. In Chapter 22, we examine more healthy alternative that achieves both more effective results as well as supports our efforts to promote a success psychology within our students.



Chapter Reflections

1.      Reflect on your experience as a student. What was your experience of competition? Do you still hold that perception today? Do it affect the way that you approach competition in your classroom?

2.      What types of teacher behaviors encourage students to think competitively? Can you think of  teachers that you have observed that promoted a mentality of comparison and competition among their students in ways other than games and contexts? 



Chapter Activities

1. In your group, discuss the question – Is the real world competitive? Can one live a competition free life?

2. For each of the following activities conceive of teacher behavior and/or a lesson design structure that would promote it being a healthy competition, and one that would promote it being an unhealthy competition.

a. Reporting the results of a test.

b. Walking through the room examining student projects.

c. Encouraging groups to clean up and get ready.

d. Holding a Spelling Contest

e. Holding a food drive



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