Opinion: How competition fails our students

(Editor’s note: Brent Zeller is the author of the provocative book Evolutionary Education: Moving Beyond Our Competitive Compulsion. Here, he explains why he believes competition is detrimental to learning. Comments are welcome at the bottom of the page.)

In 1988, after 20 years of learning and playing tennis, and 14 years of teaching it to thousands of students, I had a simple realization: The introduction of competition before we achieve proficiency in the fundamental physical, mental, and emotional skills compromises all aspects of the learning process.

Like many realizations, mine was a dawning awareness of a truth dimly intuited for years that in retrospect seemed obvious. Like most people, I had believed in the value of competition without ever questioning it. It was how I had been taught, was all I had ever known, and everyone I knew believed it, too.

Although there is widespread recognition of the many problems in our educational system, there is little recognition or acknowledgement of what I now see as our educational system’s fatal flaw–the competitive model on which it is based. While people across the political and educational spectrum agree that our educational system is flawed and propose various, often contradictory, solutions, almost all affirm the value and necessity of competition in the learning process.

Competitive learning is widespread and routine in our educational system. In almost every school, sport, subject, and skill, beginning students are thrown prematurely into some form of competition (including the pressure to achieve a good grade), long before they have even approached basic competence. Competition is often introduced at the very start of a student’s involvement with a subject, sport, or activity.

Our collective faith in the competitive system is conditioned and inherited, not based in objective evidence. The belief that a competitive learning environment is the ideal learning environment doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It is based on an implausible argument that the pressure and stress of competition, the fear of the consequences of losing, the aggressive striving against others, and the desire for the rewards of winning, somehow focuses attention, ignites motivation, develops strength, builds character, and produces excellence. Yet this belief is built on denial and rationalization, for it ignores the negative impact and consequences of premature competition on children and adult students.

After my epiphany in 1988, I reexamined my lifelong experience as a student, competitor, and teacher. I noticed the now-apparent flaws and fallacies of the competitive model, and came to an obvious and logical conclusion: The prevalence of competition in the learning process is the primary reason that most people do not achieve true excellence, mastery, or fulfill their potential in school, sports, music, and almost every other field of learning. The skills developed in a competitive system occur despite–rather than because of–competition. Competition has motivated a small percentage of people to great accomplishment. But much of that motivation comes from an unhealthy emphasis on winning, fear of losing, and an immature self-esteem derived from defeating others and thereby gaining status. 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.

We need to reexamine competition, to see where and when it is useful, and where and when it creates problems. The next evolution in learning will occur in a healthier cooperative model with a skill-to-mastery-based focus. Rather than encouraging students to compete with one another for grades, prizes, and status, this new model will facilitate deeper learning, intellectual acuity, emotional maturity, and a genuine self-esteem derived from excellence and mastery. It will raise the overall level of skill, knowledge, and creativity and allow everyone, from the least to the most talented, to fulfill his or her potential and contribute to the whole. 

I propose something along the lines of the Kumon method, which designs a series of tests that go from the most basic material to the most advanced. People who have mastered the material in any subject would design these series of tests. As with the Kumon method, the only way anyone can go on to the next test is by getting 100 percent on the more basic material. This ensures mastery of the more basic material at every level and makes it more likely that someone will be able to comprehend the more advanced material.

This approach would eliminate grades; students would either get 100 percent or they would retake the test material. I believe one of the big problems in education is that we pass people along to the next level before they know all of the more fundamental material. At some point, this approach makes it difficult to grasp the more advanced material, and learning stalls. Obviously, there are certain subjects where evaluation is more subjective and not as clear cut as math, language, or music, and different ways of evaluation will need to be worked out in those subjects.

A non-competitive learning system develops concentration, relaxation, emotional maturity, healthy camaraderie, and fundamental skills. By emphasizing enjoyment of an activity and the learning process for its own sake, and de-emphasizing the importance of winning, losing, and external rewards, it diminishes negative emotional states and behaviors. Children especially thrive in a non-competitive learning environment, and they naturally develop the fundamental skills without the unpleasant stresses and emotions inevitably triggered by premature competition. 

Competition might be part of human nature, but it need not dominate human nature and conduct. By adopting cooperative, non-competitive, skill-to-mastery-based models of teaching, learning and living, we can all rise above the limitations of our competitive system and fulfill our greater potential as individuals and as a species.


Evolutionary Education: Moving Beyond Our Competitive Compulsion

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