I Won!

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Contests are powerful.  Most of us love the thrill of competition.  Spelling bees, state football play-offs, running in a 5K, or building a business in an uncertain economy seems to keep our blood flowing!  Even armchair quarterbacks can compete, vicariously living out a game in the persona of a loyal fan.  My father was a competitive tennis player even into his early eighties.  I asked him one time how much he enjoyed the thrill of victory.  “I don’t really care about winning,” he told me, “but I hate to lose.”

I certainly don’t know what causes human beings to be competitive.  The prevailing thought is that it is an innate part of our being that helps to ensure survival.  Other ideas suggest that higher organisms (like us) compete because it is principally a learned behavior.

Schools are noteworthy venues of competition, particularly in the area of athletics.  Competition for acceptance into certain independent schools and colleges is fierce.  Admissions are heavily based on grades, class rank, and standardized tests such as the Secondary School Admission Test, the ACT or SAT.  Within a given classroom, however, competition has diminished (intentionally) in the last several decades as teachers push for each child to succeed through cooperative activities.

Wisdom literature assures us that “there is a time and a place for everything.”  Cooperative learning is not “better” than competitive learning, but it is more appropriate for certain kinds of education.  At my school, for example, we have both of these styles present.  The competitive part is obvious in the interscholastic sports program and in competitive clubs (like chess), but cooperative strategies are generally the norm in the classroom.  The big exception occurs on “Blue and Gold” days.  These are days when the entire student body, all of whom are members of either the Blue or the Gold team, gather in the gym for an afternoon “Brain Brawl”.  The format is sort of like a television game show, with academic questions developed by the teaching faculty.  It’s brain versus brain mayhem on the last day of each marking period!  At the end of the event we have a winning team who proudly own the coveted spirit-stick until the next competition.  It’s fun, it’s competitive, and (as far as we can tell) no one’s self-esteem is unduly threatened.

The wise teacher will balance the needs of his class as he prepares cooperative or competitive academic activities.  I submit that, as long as the child does not believe that her self-worth is tied to winning or losing, contests are excellent teaching tools.  Contests tap into a deep, deep part of our nature.

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN