In a WWF (or as we now know it WWE) style steel cage match, competition would totally crush cooperation’s butt. Blood would be shed and someone would lose a tooth or three. It would probably be close for most of the match as cooperation would work well with itself to get the job done driving in punches and dodging jabs, but in the end, competition would fight hard to be number one and deal cooperation the death-blow in the final seconds of the match. It would be an epic battle that I would totally pay to see on TV like back in the day. Summer Slam was always my favorite wrestling event as it came in the middle of summer when I was on school vacation and so my dad would let me stay up to watch the whole thing. For Wrestlemania, my parents would record it on the VCR for me as it was generally on a Sunday night and I had school the next day. Ahh, the good ol’ days of shouting matches and fake fighting. It didn’t get much better than that.
As a classroom teacher, I’ve read all the research on creating a competitive classroom environment versus creating an atmosphere of cooperation amongst the students. Both approaches have their positives and negatives. Competition drives students to put forth great effort so that they can earn more points or do better than their classmates. This motivation helps students to do well, generally, when competition is involved in the classroom. Team games or projects that have a prize or winning component energize the students and get them excited about learning and accomplishing a task. At the same time though, this extreme competition can drive students to be unkind to their teammates or act in a disrespectful manner as they try to best their classmates. On the flipside, cooperation pulls students together towards a common goal. The students act as a singular, family-like unit to complete a task, game, or project. They help one another and utilize compassion when interacting with their classmates as they are all trying to complete a task together. Sometimes, though, when cooperation is involved, those students who lack the social skills or strategies needed to be an active member of a team usually do nothing to very little, forcing their teammates to pick up the slack. This then creates tension amongst the students as fairness plays a huge part in their mental state when issues like this arise. So, which learning and teaching approach is most effective to help students best learn vital skills needed to be successful students living meaningful lives in a global society?
Today in STEM class, the students finished working on their presentations for Saturday’s big Climate Change Solutions Exposition taking place in the classroom. Faculty members will be serving as judges while the students present their solutions regarding the problems of global warming and climate change. It will be organized very much like a science fair. Each pair of students will be assigned a table and area of the room in which they can set up their digital presentation, prototype, and other materials. The boys will then try to convince the faculty judges as to why and how their solution is the most viable and best solution to help solve the problem of climate change on Earth. The students have spent the past several weeks working on creating their solution, prototype, and presentation. Much research, energy, problem solving, and critical thinking has gone into completing this project. The boys are pumped and excited as they are vying for a huge prize if they have the solution voted best by the judges. The energy in the room during the past several work periods has been incredibly positive. The boys have been focused on their solution and presentation, without being negative or trying to bring other groups down. The students will even help members of other groups when problems are encountered. It’s been quite amazing. For me, competition has been a valuable motivator and tool for the students. They have worked harder on this project than they have on any previous STEM group project. Why is this?
I think the big answer is because of the way we have structured the class this year. We worked tirelessly during the first two months of school to foster a sense of caring and kindness amongst the students. We explored how to work effectively with others as well as how to encounter and approach problems faced when working with other students. This atmosphere of support and compassion helped us to create a culture of caring within the sixth grade. No matter what the project or task is, the students support and care for each other. It’s amazing to see this in action. The boys truly do act like a family, taking care of one another. I think, because we created this family environment within the classroom, the students approached this competitive STEM group project like any other task faced with this year, with love and respect. For this reason alone, competition is a strongly motivating force of good for the students. If we had not fostered this sense of trust and support amongst the students, this project based on competition would not be going as well as it is. Setting students up for success isn’t just about academic content and standards, it’s about teaching students how to be good and kind citizens.