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Should schools follow competitive or cooperative models? Can they be both?

Another provocative essay by frequent contributor and University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I used to play a lot of basketball when my body was younger. One court where I played every night was at the local high school gym, which could be divided into two so that two full-court games could be played simultaneously. One court was dedicated to the older, more serious, and more skilled players; the other was for younger players of lesser talent.

I was good enough for the high-intensity court, which used the “winners” system in which the winning team got to play the next game against a new pickup team. Often, teams had to wait several games to get back on the court, which placed a high value on winning once you got a chance to play. Losing teams might have to wait a half-hour or more just to get another shot.

His message was clear: If I wanted to be good, I shouldn’t play against weak competition. And he was right: the better the competition, the better I got at the game. I might dominate the secondary court’s lesser players, but in doing so I cut corners and got sloppy because I could get away with mistakes and still succeed. On the main court, I might be an average player, but in doing so became a better player. The competition is what made the difference.

My point is not to boast of my long-atrophied basketball skills. Among the many great divides in public opinion is the question of whether or not schools should be competitive. To some people, school should be a training ground for the life beyond.

Given that capitalist societies like the U.S. are fundamentally competitive, they see schooling that does not pit people against one another as antithetical to core American values. Students must thus compete academically and socially for goods, as they will later do for salaries, promotions, and other rewards of productive life in our economy, and do so in every aspect of their educations.

Others see competition as the root of much evil. Competition breeds corruption, as evidenced by cheating scandals great (APS test score changing) and small (kids taking cellphone shots of exam questions for their friends). Kids cheat on tests, teachers run student work through and other plagiarism software programs, schools fudge their test score data, administrators get awards and bonuses for bogus scores, and so on. When winning is the point, the rules are optional as long as no one’s looking.

If power corrupts, then systems that make power a central aspect of participation produce corruption among its members, with coercion from the top often producing unethical conduct all the way down. Just ask the Atlanta teachers headed to prison on racketeering charges for 5-20 years.

I think that both of these possibilities — that competition brings out excellence and that competition breeds corruption — can be true at the same time. But part of the problem with the public debate about the value of competition (and the discussion within academia) is that people tend to load all their marbles into one of these pockets but not the other.

I don’t see the question as being whether competition is good or bad, or that competition should either permeate the schooling experience or be absent from it altogether. The question, I think, is better framed as one of when competition is appropriate, and when it is counterproductive.

As I said at the beginning, I think that for people who undertake an activity in order to get better at it, a competitive environment can provide models of successful performance and opportunities to participate that bring out the best in one’s efforts and lead to long-term improvement. Competition under such conditions can be a very good element of participation.

Playing sports is one activity in school in which students voluntarily join a competitive situation.

Spectators expect that the competition will produce viewable performances that provide cathartic experiences of success and fulfillment for the winners, and occasionally the losers in valiant efforts.

Game performances are only part of the process of competing to improve. Although  Alan Iverson  might disagree, Hall of Fame player Ed Macauley summed up the importance of competing in practice: “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.”

Those who argue against schools as sites of competition tend to speak on behalf of collaboration and cooperation over antagonism. Cooperative learning, for instance, tends to involve working in groups for problem-solving, without pitting one group against the other. The emphasis is on students generating ideas in search of a solution to a given problem or challenge.

Even the oft-invoked business accountability model relies on group problem-solving.  Here, for instance, the business model is values-driven, with communication, cooperation, and coordination comprising three of the four values of organizational life, even as business competition is assumed to be the primary driver of individual conduct.

The debate about competitiveness versus cooperation, I would argue, should not be about making a forced choice between two polar positions. Rather, the discussion should center on where in the educational system each produces the most desirable results. Note that they are not mutually exclusive, for basketball teams need to function cohesively in order to compete effectively against opponents.

If you’re looking for a rule book here on when to compete and when to cooperate, you’re asking the wrong person. Instead, ask the teachers who know their students well and can make informed judgments on how to structure learning activities to promote students’ growth in their disciplines and at the age levels they are teaching.

Just don’t expect them to decide that it’s either one or the other, with no middle ground.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.