Learning is Not a Competition

Greenwich Photography via Compfight cc

The revelation earlier this week that Canadian Cycling hero Ryder Hesjedal had been a doper and a cheater came as no surprise to those of us who have spent good chunks of our lives involved in the world of elite cycling.  Road racers claim the culture of doping gives them no choice but to cross the line into dishonesty to survive in their sport. Clean cyclists are robbed of their funding and their ability to make a living when cheaters hog the podium, and some of the best athelete role models never get to compete for their country.

Cheaters also “hog the podium” in school.

In a culture of learning, there should not be a “podium”, but we all know that there is.  It’s called “Recognizing Excellence” or “Academic Awards”, or some other such thing that allows us to celebrate the “winners” of the competition called school.

Ryder Hesjedal chose to race on a bicycle and he chose to cheat to win.  Jesse Jakomait continues to choose to race on a bicycle and chose NOT to cheat to become an Olympian.  Choosing to compete can be healthy and fun and push you to stretch your personal limits if it works for you, but it is a choice.


But children do not choose to come to school.  They have to.

They come to school to learn, not to compete for marks.  We know that learning works best in an environment of collaboration.  Competition for the highest mark, and practices like bell-curving, work against collaboration, and against best learning.

We know that feedback from teachers is a powerful way to move learning forward, and we know that when that feedback is accompanied by a number, a grade, students look at the grade and ignore the feedback.

This recent article/interview on CBC Radio Day 6 outlines the problem of awards and extrinsic awards for learning:

“[But] you don’t just get rid of awards assemblies because they make the kids that don’t get rewards feel bad. You get rid of awards assemblies because they’re not useful for any kids. Everyone loses in a race to win.”

Changing the rules of the game is hardest for those who are winning at the game, as demonstrated by the interviews of “furious parents” at the beginning of the audio interview.

And when learning is a competition, just like elite cyclists, students cheat.

As a Principal, I spent more than a few hours dealing with students who “cheated” on tests, exams and assignments.

But why do kids feel they need to cheat? If kids are supposed to be learning in school, how does cheating enter the picture?

It comes down to how performance differs from learning.  Comparing yourself with others, fighting for the highest mark, competing for a spot in a university program or trying to meet parent demands for high marks sets students up to find the easy way out, which can be cheating.

This math major says it well.  Math is hard, but you can do it. “Stop comparing yourself to that other student!”

Schools need to be a place where children and young adults feel valued, are encouraged to reach their full potential, and learn to work with others to achieve excellence.  There is no room for the message that winning is the only thing we value.

Save that for the cyclists.

Note: Thanks to Louise Robitaille (@Robitaille2011) for sharing this thoughtful post by @terryainge: https://deltalearns.ca/terryainge/2013/10/28/understanding-assessment-how-i-fell-out-of-love-with-the-grading-program/

Please also see this collection by Chris Wejr (@chriswejr): http://chriswejr.com/thoughts-on-awards-ceremonies/

9 thoughts on “Learning is Not a Competition

  1. Nicely put, Donna. How many times do we talk about individualization, teaching to the learner’s strengths, etc. and yet they all have to write the same tests, standardized evaluations, etc. It’s not easily solved though. We live in a culture where resumes, job interviews, applications beyond secondary schools, all value the number assigned by the school system. I recall my first resumes included some sort of award that I don’t recall now. How do we address that?

    1. Hi Doug;
      Thank you for taking the time to comment on this post. I value your input.

      You are correct. It is not easily solved.

      It is another example of “when knowledge and belief collide”. We know that reducing children to 2-digit numbers is a ridiculous practice but we believe that is a function of school in our society. It is so ingrained, that other systems in society have learned to depend on that number without even questioning its value.

      I’m sure you have been “behind the scenes” in deciding who, in schools, get the awards. As a young teacher, I was bullied by the old guard who selected students they were related to and who they were friends with over students who worked harder but had no connections. It sickened me.

      I have also sat through graduation ceremonies in the public system where students received numerous “scholarships” based on the fact they attended a particular church in town. I have seen one student get thousands of dollars because that was who the guidance counselor chose to put forward for the external award (only one applicant allowed per school).

      It takes courage to look deeply into practices that do not promote learning in schools and work to change them, and as Ron Canuel said, (posted on the ECOO blog), …. “without the courage, we’re not going to see the change.” http://ecoo.org/blog/2013/03/05/the-agenda-teaching-towards-the-future/

  2. I love the way you’ve connected two things you know very well to the competition theme. Another funny contrast is that non-effort is often rewarded in those who got the ‘do-school-well’ gene, while others working much harder are often left off the school podium. And as I write this, I wonder why learning must be seen as ‘work’ in the first place.

    1. Hi Rod;

      Thanks for taking some time to leave your comments. I always enjoy our conversations and I have learned so much from you.

      So many kids “figure school out” and do well without really learning, especially in high school. It’s easy to take a slate of courses you know you can win at and choose teachers that will give you the marks you need. Just think about the games that are played around the ENG4U course. It doesn’t matter what teacher teaches it best or who a student would learn the most from, it’s what teacher will give the highest mark because university entrance depends on that mark.

      I feel sorry for the principal whose summer holidays are interrupted by the livid parent that discovers in July that the ENG4U mark is 84 and not 85, because the lobbying to raise the mark can be vicious.

      I want a school where students choose their subjects of study for reasons that have nothing to do with their pre-conceived notions about their ability to do well. Shouldn’t they be learning some things they don’t already do well?

      I am very careful about the use of the word “work” when referring to student learning opportunities, because, like you, I know we need to rethink our concept of what it is we think kids should be doing in school.

      Grant Wiggins posts some interesting things that kids say we should NOT be doing here: http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/more-on-student-boredom-from-students/

      Lets keep the conversations going. Always a pleasure to hear from you!

  3. This post definitely got the gears in my head turning. I agree with Doug that some of our assessments, such as standardized tests and rubrics goes against the current trend of individualized learning. I also agree that in some cases, there is cheating, both by students who have “figured out the system” and by teachers who, for whatever reason, want to get students through the system. However, I disagree with the generalization that all students cheat in a competitive setting. I disagree because of my current crop of academic-level students, who legitimately work hard, excel in their work, and have been rewarded and honoured in school ceremonies. I share the belief that they are being rewarded not for possessing a “do school well” gene, but for a “high effort” gene. The reality is that after school, as Doug points out, competition and grades will remain important. If we eliminate grades, (and competition), are we then doing a disservice in preparing our students for post-secondary school and the world of work?

    I also think honouring achievement is important, but maybe we need to go about it differently. At my school, we have recognized that it’s not just all about grades. We all know that high school should also be about extra-curricular activities, collaboration, attitude, and other attributes that can’t simply be assessed with a number. These non-curricular factors are, in my mind, work that is equally important to anything else done in class. I think these factors need to be weighed equally, (or higher) with our traditional marks-based system if we are going to recognize students. I know some schools do this with great success.

    In all likelihood, there will always be cheaters. Our role is to develop a culture that acknowledges that the person who crosses the finish line first isn’t always the winner.

  4. I love how you’ve related Ryder Hesjedal to “winning” in school. And what a great connection to use with the kids as well! They’d get it right away. I wonder how students would verbalize the peer perception these days of the educational “podium”? I’d love to have some conversations with them – perhaps I will and I’ll post a link to them! Has anyone else asked for student insights into the peer culture these days? Is it changing?

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