Do you know what a line leader is? In early elementary classrooms throughout the United States, it is the child assigned each day to be at the front of the lines when the class exits their classroom or lines up after recess. We need line leaders because if we weren’t to assign it, there would be a scramble for “first place” throughout the day. Without line leaders, the toughest, pushiest child would always lead the line.
The bigger question around this idea is – why do some kids feel compelled to push their way to the front? Renowned educator, Alfie Kohn argues (in No Contest) that this is the result of toxic competition in our society – of the race to win or to be first. He argues that the emphasis on competition makes us all losers trying to “beat out our friends.” He acknowledges that his stance sounds un-American, but he feels that his earlier position of qualified support for competition is wrong. He argues that competition is inherently destructive in that one person succeeds only if the other person fails, and he believes that there is no place in schools for this sort of thinking.
Kohn represents one side of the debate about competition, and he brings solid research to support his argument. The other side of the debate argues that competition drives people to perfect their skills. But does it? Research argues the opposite. Setting objective standards and having a person reach it is motivational, but pitting a student against another generates hostility. Studies have shown that children who compete frequently are less empathetic than others and are less generous.
So how do I reconcile this thinking with the fact that we enter our students in the school, county and state Science Fairs, or that we run a competitive athletic program. I would argue that competition in and of itself is value neutral. It becomes negative or positive by the way we “use” it – how we talk about it to our students. If our children’s sense of self-worth is connected to “winning” then competition does become a destructive force in a person’s life. If competition narrows a child’s ability to try out different activities just for fun, then it is does have negative connotations. Some recent studies have noted that competition with cooperation (i.e. team sports) has a beneficial impact on children’s social emotional well-being.
In October when I discussed the common thread among the Noble Prize Winners, I noted that none of these people worked ceaselessly on their various projects in order to win the Noble Prize. They clearly were just plain passionate about and absorbed in their work. It is passion and grit that drives success, and this may or may not be acknowledged by a prize or a win. I think the focus on competition is a red herring. Instead we should be finding the ways to inspire and to drive passion. It is about finding that growth mindset – that inner locus of control. A competitively won prize might be the by-product of that passion but the prize should never be the ultimate goal - and we are really proud of our passionate young scientists who really placed at the County Science Fair.