We give prizes and ovations to the kids who come first, who write the most sophisticated essays, who run the fastest, who make the fewest mistakes on the test. Those kids get to walk across the stage, shake hands, and get their photo taken. They are the ‘winners’.
But who is there to salute the kid who works just as hard, gives his all but doesn’t get an ‘A’? Who’s there to celebrate the last kid, puffed and sweating, when he crosses the line? Doesn’t he deserve an ovation too?
Or maybe we only cheer for the ‘winners’?
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.