Competitive Atmosphere does not Benefit all

Every law student is familiar with the Socratic method. It has been used for thousands of years as a way to promote critical thinking and find truth within abstract topics. It is also a competition between student and teacher. Because the teacher has the advantage of being able to question, they are likely to win more often than not by asking incessant questions or quickly shifting gears to a new paradigm. Unprepared pupils disdain this type of learning, but it does get at the heart of the matter in unique way.

An academically competitive atmosphere is helpful to certain types of students. These motivated, type-A personalities seek to be the best. The idea of working diligently to gain an upper hand drives them. But for the majority, a competitive atmosphere is unlikely to improve performance.

Mr. LaMay was a career math teacher at Hollywood Hills High School in Hollywood, Florida. Desks were arranged in rows with students seated in order of their class average. ‘A’ students were in the first row, ‘B’ students in the second row, and so on. This design was perfect for gauging whether or not competition is beneficial. Student test scores from a class without competitive seating could be  easily compared. A former honors student, Jennifer, was asked her opinion about the set up of the class. “It made me dislike him.” Despite being an above-average student in an advanced class, Jennifer did not find that a competitive atmosphere benefitted her academically.

One argument for all-girls schools has been that young women are less shy about asking questions and expressing their opinions without interference from the opposite sex. Some studies have shown all-girls’ middle and high schools lead to increasing performance in both math and science-traditionally perceived as “male” subjects. The Western School of Technology is a magnet secondary school for girls in Baltimore, frequently ranking among the top public institutions in Maryland. Five separate engineering courses are offered in grades 6 – 12. In addition, there are 17 advanced placement options for students along with college math courses in Differential Equations, Linear Algebra and Multivariable Calculus.

Men and women compete differently. While men often strive to best their peers, women work better in groups. The principle of coopetition involves a hybrid of cooperation and competition. In this model, taught at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business, organizations within the same industry work together for their mutual benefit. They also strive to create a competitive advantage. The same principle could work at the school or district level students of all ages.

There is no simple answer for whether or not a competitive environment helps students. No two are the same. Student learning as an end should always take precedence over education ideology as a means. Granting principals and teachers the ability to innovate rapidly and experiment with various models would help more than a policy mandated by a state DOE or school board.