We’re good at telling students how important it is to serve, nurture and support others. But with the system we currently tolerate, students ultimately ‘succeed’ at school by serving themselves.
Musical chairs and beating the game
Do you remember being a young child at a birthday party and playing ‘musical chairs’? The aim is to be the one winner of the game, not one of the nine losers. And you win by beating all the other kids by being the last one in the game – the other kids are the obstacle for you to overcome, (or over-step or over-climb, or whatever it takes). It seemed like fun at the time, didn’t it, if you weren’t one of the losers?
Guess what happens if, instead, the game is modified a little so that other kids become partners to enable you to win rather than obstacles that are trying to prevent you from winning? What do you think happens if, as the chairs disappear one by one, the final goal is for all 10 children to work together to squeeze onto the final chair?
Not only do children enjoy the game more, but these types of modifications have been found to increase general cooperativeness and decrease aggression in young children. We still get all the benefits of competition, including high levels of engagement and learning, but we’re harnessing cooperative competition (beating the game) rather than adversarial competition (beating each other).
It’s not surprising that working together to ‘beat the game’, feels so enjoyable and rewarding; it is deeply encoded in our genes.
Whilst having virtually no particular physical prowess, and despite evolving in a range of hostile environments, the human ability to communicate, plan for the future, and cooperate has enabled our survival and our thriving. Despite being faced with immensely challenging problems, humans have evolved to harness cooperation to beat the game, to beat the odds, rather than to beat each other.
Maybe schools can too.
What if we work together instead?
The International Space Station (ISS) is, arguably, the most incredible feat of human engineering ever. It is also the most expensive single item ever constructed – costing over US$150 billion to construct. It is also, potentially, the most valuable tool available to humanity. Already, medical and environmental discoveries have been made onboard – and the scientific research that the ISS enables, may one day lead to us populating other planets. Amazing.
And it has only been possible because of cooperation instead of competition. The ISS is a joint project involving four countries; Canada, Japan, Russia, USA. The ISS was realised because these four countries worked together (along with the European Space Agency) to fund, design, and construct it.
It simply would not exist in a competitive environment.
It’s interesting, therefore, to consider the widely accepted notion in schools that competition is critical because it ‘builds character’ and ‘produces excellence’.
Actually, much of the evidence relating to schools suggests that competition tends to: suppress innovation, reduce standards of excellence, harm self-esteem, reduce teamwork, limit empathy, and increase anxiety. And numerous studies have shown that, when students are cooperating and supporting each other rather than trying to beat each other, they not only perform better but enjoy the activity more.
If you delete competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation, all we have left as a motivational catalyst is meaning and purpose. When a child or adult is doing something that they feel inherently makes sense and it matters, competition becomes redundant. In fact, when we’re doing something that feels like it really matters we are instinctively compelled to work with others, not against them, because we know the force-multiplying effect that cooperation unlocks.
Ultimately, the building of character and production of excellence requires, not competition, but the fostering of cooperation, empathy, interdependence, and a sense of united purpose. When we get this right, amazing things happen in schools and International Space Stations get built.