I've seen first hand how authentic collaboration - rooted in vulnerably - encourages critical reflection, deep learning, new ideas and personal and systemic improvement. I've seen how real collaboration can keep us accountable to each other and the goal at hand.
Truthfully, however, I've also seen evidence of how competition promotes innovation, productivity and improvement. For example, we have recently been interviewing potential teachers for next year. The current job market for teachers is competitive. Teachers that articulate and promote their vision and provide clear evidence to support that vision will "win" positions over others.
Recently, the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing has had me thinking about the role of competition in our world. It has me thinking about how competition motivates (or not) me as a person and professional. It has me thinking about my own children and students and how we are preparing them for the "world" as it is and how it might evolve. Globalization, if we've learned anything, has increased competition for post-secondary opportunities and career opportunities.
Which gets me to my main point - I don't think we should promote collaboration at the expense of competition. Nor do I think we should promote competition at the expense of collaboration.
There is a place and a time for both. My nuanced take on this "dance" is that to be competitive in today's world you must find ways to effectively collaborative. In other words, to be competitive, you must be collaborative.
Some thoughts and pitfalls of competition
Competition without collaboration promotes closed systems. It closes classroom doors and prevents innovation and new ideas.
Developmental researchers are finding that, in general, learning processes that promote competition can have a negative effect on the learning process. (see this post I wrote on Dweck's book Mindset and grading practices). I have been witness to far too many students who, in an effort to be competitive with their learning, will either take any and all shortcuts to "win" or "play it safe" with their learning.
I worry that a focus on competition can also cause more stress and anxiety. In an effort to gain an edge over others, I wonder if we are "burning out" with more frequency. Certainly in schools, we are seeing more and more students falling victim to anxiety related issues.
A focus on competition can lead to an undermining of the common good, the narrowing a common vision and atrophy the growth within schools (and organizations). Competition at all costs, can undermine the efforts between those who actually share a common purpose. I have seen witness to this in schools where "programs" compete for students attention and time at the expense of the broader vision. I have seen schools within the same system or district compete for students. On a broader level, in British Columbia, I see a general lack of cooperation and dialogue between independent and public schools (despite sharing much of the same purpose) at the expense of what is best for our students.
Some interesting points
I came across this great article on the Competition/Collaboration debate. Here are some the high lights of the article for me:
Research has shown that collaboration/cooperation is more effective than competition for completing complex puzzles and tasks. In general the competitive groups were more focused on beating each other than solving the problem. As was quoted in one research study “greater productivity occurs when the members of a group are organized in terms of cooperative activities rather than competitive ones”
The research has shown that competition can be effective for increases the speed at which a task is performed. While cooperation increases the accuracy with which the same task is performed. "In other words, if you want the job done fast, competition is the way to go. If you want the job done well, you're better off with cooperation".
One very interesting research study that the article references attempts to see the correlation between competition, collaboration and students' self esteem. The findings:
in societies where competition is encouraged, children associated competition with greater self esteem. However, in societies where cooperation was encouraged, children tended to associate cooperation with greater self-esteem. In either case, it was not some inherent quality of the child, but rather the culture itself that most influenced self-esteem
The article attempts to answer whether as humans we are predisposed to collaboration or competition. The answer:
"there is no major natural tendency for humans to be competitive OR cooperative; the type of behaviour favoured is based on the situation at hand. Depending on whether competition or cooperation is called for, humans will do what we do best: adapt to the situation at hand, and present the behaviour that favours our survival."As we navigate through the collaboration/competition discussion I think we would be best served to understand the place of both collaboration AND competition in our society so that we can be better teachers and role models for our students.