Competition versus Cooperation in school

by Peter Hartnell

The age-old question of competition – is it helpful or harmful – has long occupied commentators, especially educators. In schools, it has always been something of a false dichotomy. The characterization that competition produces rampant individualism, serious, stressed students prone to domination, intimidation and bullying on the one hand, or to determined and fearless leaders, able to survive in a  hostile world on the other, have both always struck me as extreme and inaccurate positions.

Schools are microcosms of society and in my view should always stress cooperation, both in the classroom and on the sports field and we will never be able to, or probably want to completely eradicate healthy competition or friendly rivalry. In many Asian countries, including Thailand, the group mentality (by which I mean not wanting to show off, not wanting to stand out or be singled out), and kindness, helpfulness and generosity towards one another are strong, and students naturally tend to share and to cooperate, and to want to work and to play together as a team.

In the classroom one would always want to be inclusive and to foster a culture where all students felt secure enough to take risks and to make mistakes. There is a great deal of evidence from modern constructivist psychologists such as Vygotsky and Bruner, for example, that students often need the “talk” of their fellow students to help “translate” what the teacher says into their own personal frames of reference. Often one or two students will grasp the concepts the teacher is trying to put across, and they will have an important role in helping their peers to assimilate the information. From a purely educational point of view, all classrooms should provide opportunities for group work. We are all social beings and the benefits of group work extend into fostering friendship and often improving motivation.

That is not to say that such groups cannot compete with each other to produce, say, the best poster about healthy living, but the competition is likely to be friendly and most students will learn to see the good in their own and their competitors’ projects.

A good teacher will provide a pragmatic mix of cooperation and competition in the classroom. The motivation that can be gained for some students from, say, reading the most books during Book Week, or being the best at multiplication, should not be underestimated. Effort should always be applauded as loudly as ability.

An integral part of our school culture is the House system, which just like Hogwarts, is based on four Houses, one of which all our students belong to. The Houses have regular competitive sporting and other events and a series of competitions every term, from producing a school newspaper to fundraising events. The House system is an important part of our program to improve self-esteem and enhance motivation. By organizing our pupils’ individual competitive traits into teams, most of our students have to cooperate to compete. All these events are held in a spirit of friendly rivalry and the point of the exercise is great fun for all involved!

Students can gain House points for any kind of academic or non-academic behavior that we feel we would like to encourage in the school. I am particularly fond of giving a House point to students who come smiling to me when I arrive at school and wish me a “Good Morning” in English and shake my hand! The House points are recorded and added up at the end of each week, and a winning team is announced at assembly every Friday.

Our teachers can all give certificates at assembly, and again these are likely to be for academic work, for effort or for some desirable change in a student’s attitude or behavior. The school concentrates on “positive discipline” and we tend to follow the dictum from Alice in Wonderland after the Dodo’s race that “they must all have prizes”.

Peter Hartnell is head teacher at Tara Pattana International School.

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