Rather than producing the highest level of skill among the greatest number of people, competition produces a majority of “losers”, and a handful of “winners” of inconsistent ability, unfulfilled potential, and relative immaturity.
If we objectively examine the real and alleged benefits of our competitive educational system, we see that it does not live up to its hype.
Introducing competition into the learning process is often stressful and counter-productive, causing far more harm than good. For a majority of students, a competitive learning environment does not increase motivation, improve performance, or support healthy emotional development. It interferes with concentration and diminishes enjoyment, performance, and motivation. It is disruptive to learning and makes achieving excellence and mastery more difficult.
Premature competition introduces conflict and performance anxiety into the learning process, while tacitly encouraging cheating and other forms of “poor sportsmanship.” All these things undermine self-esteem, healthy character development, and interpersonal relations.
When competition is introduced into the learning process, learning becomes a contest. The focus and emphasis shift from learning to winning–and the fear of losing or failing.
When winning is over-emphasized, and “losing” is demonized, the entire process of learning, playing, performing, etc., is seen through a distorted, anxiety-producing lens.
The learning process is contaminated by the desire to win (rather than to learn) and to be seen as a winner, as well as by fears of losing and being seen as a loser. Yet these unhealthy aspects of the competitive model are often ignored, denied, rationalized, and even made to seem “positives.”
My experience and observation have shown me that the premature introduction of competition into the learning process produces far more negative than positive effects and impedes rather than enhances learning and performance levels. In fact, if competition were a drug, the Food and Drug Administration would ban it for having too many adverse side effects.
That most people find it difficult to imagine an alternative to competitive behavior shows how deeply programmed this belief has become. Psychologist Alfie Kohn points to this conditioned cellular memory via “socialization” when he writes: “That most of us fail to consider the alternatives to competition is a testament to the effectiveness of our socialization. We have been trained not only to compete but to believe in competition.” And sociologist David Riesman writes: “First we are systematically socialized to compete–and to want to compete–and then the results are cited as evidence of competition’s inevitability.”
I do not suggest eliminating competition. I am arguing against its premature introduction into the learning process. I am asking if it is wise and effective to force children into competition while they are learning, before they achieve basic proficiency.
Competition can now take its rightful place as an advanced aspect of any activity. Until we have developed essential physical, mental, and emotional skills, we are not ready to compete. Until then, competition interferes with the learning process and diminishes our chances of achieving proficiency, and even emotional maturity.
I do not have all the answers for how this model will work at all levels, but because I know that true peak performance can only occur when everyone is helping us be our best, there must be some way to have it work in higher education as well as K-12. The key thing here is that we need to help our species evolve to higher levels of consciousness, and the only way I believe that is possible is through a non-competitive learning system.