Why competition is a good thing (and we need more of it in schools)

Nutshell: we could co-opt our innate need to compare and compete and, to a certain extent, have a collective ‘enemy’ for the purpose of enhancing educational outcomes.

I loved studying ecology at uni. It all made so much sense to me when all the jigsaw pieces of life seemed to slot into place: very satisfying! However, the lasting impression is that just like that kid from Sixth Sense who saw dead people everywhere, I see ecosystems everywhere. I just can’t help it. A key factor in ecology is the importance of competition in enhancing a species’ chance of success and humans are surely included in this. In fact, it is generally accepted that humans are competitive and you don’t need to search for too long in order to find evidence of this. Amusing examples of how we compete, sometimes just inside our own heads, are:

  • When very young, with siblings in order to get parental attention and resources, and with peers in order to get teacher attention and resources
  • When very young, with the opposite sex at school in order to prove that the opposite sex is rubbish in some way
  • When slightly older, with peers for various ‘top dog’ status such as being the best at scoring goals, running, times tables, drawing, or having the most number of friends and wearing the coolest trainers (latter two are possibly linked)
  • Teenage girls compare and compete with each other as to who is the prettiest, slimmest, sexiest, most fashionable, has the handsomest boyfriend/most success with the boys
  • Teenage boys compare and compete with each other as to who is the strongest, fastest, most daring, best at ‘witty’ banter, feigning disinterest in school in order to prove manliness
  • Women compare and compete with each other as to who is the slimmest, most successful at ‘life’, most able to defy the ageing process, has the most memorable of weddings, is able to design the most boutique hotel-like interior for their homes, can curate the sexiest and most artistic holiday snaps on social media and who eats the least at a work-do buffet and makes a big show of it
  • Men compare and compete with each other as to who can move the most paving slabs, who’s got the best missus, who’s got the best house, who can down their pint the fastest, who is/appears least fatigued at the end of a club (bike) ride and who can shift the most metal at the gym

Granted, most of the above is pretty vacuous, but we still do it! Even nerds compete with their fellow nerd as to who is the most academic in some way. The drive to compete is everywhere and in everyone. Why? A scientist would say we have evolved this way because in a past world where resources were scarce and the chances of survival and reproductive success were somewhat reduced, competition made us push ourselves in order to maximise our change of survival and success. The only people I see who seem to be immune to competition are those who would, if ranked, come out on top anyway, i.e they’re pretty good at something, tend to be a lot older and have that air of confidence. Perhaps this is a natural shift in mindset that happens to everyone when they have either reached a certain age, have everything they need (and have also procreated?) or perhaps achieved everything they had set out to achieve? Perhaps some people believe that they are simply better than others and don’t need a competition to prove it.

The latter thought reminds me of an interesting thought-exercise conducted on a group of people, myself included, who were attending a speech by a well-known educationalist. She announced that we would be taking part in an experiment: an exam in a mysterious subject and then we would be ranked by results at the end of it. Then, she asked us to put up our hands if we’d be happy with that. Pretty much everyone was horrified and kept their hands down, except an idiot who was thinking about the one time she came dead last at a long distance duathlon and how she had learned from it as well as seeing the funny side*. This universal dismissal of competition and ranking was used as an example to gain collective approval that competition and ranking are de facto bad for children and should never happen in schools, whereas I thought that perhaps it was proof that people don’t like being tested on something they may know nothing about; therefore, we need to ensure that children are taught well and have committed knowledge to long term memory before they do an exam. To me, it’s all about fairness and I think that deep down the mass balking wasn’t so much the ranking per se, but at the unfairness of being ranked with those who may already know this mysterious knowledge. I also thought there might be an element of confidence that comes with age and believing one is superior to others (because of their chosen profession and their current status within that profession – attendees were all school leaders), therefore the thought of being ranked on some other factor was viewed as pure insult. Children have no such thoughts because they have yet to make their way in the world.

Anyway, given that we all, at some point and particularly when young, have this innate competitive drive, I’m somewhat perplexed when educators decide they can simply eradicate the competitive instinct in the name of promoting those ’21st Century Skills’ we’re all supposed to have. To me, a decision to eradicate competition in order to improve humanity is on the same level of folly as a decision to eradicate our preference for making our own lives easier and more productive by making rules, routines and habits illegal. If an educator decides to remove academic competition, then I believe this either drives academic competition ‘underground’ or drives children to compete on other terms (such as who has the best trainers). We’ve all witnessed teachers say, ‘Don’t worry! This isn’t a competition and you should just do your best!‘ as they hand out exam papers to their class, only for each and every child to spend an amount of time copping a sly look at neighbours’ writing in order to ascertain whether they’re on the right track and in with a chance of not coming last – everyone works that little bit harder. We all know that there will be a surreptitious ranking of percentage results when the teacher gives back those marked exam papers.

I was going to choose a more salubrious image, but this one cracked me up

Even those who would normally come near to the bottom of a league table seem to still want to take part. I have found, over the years, that maths competitions, implemented well, seem fire up absolutely everybody, including those disabilities and SEN. I think the key here is to make sure competition is ‘healthy competition’ with the option for everyone to achieve a personal best and where there is an adult in charge to ensure no-one’s cheating, being a sore loser or showing off too much, although it is important to celebrate the high achievers because they have worked for it and set the gold standard for everyone. Perhaps it is the honesty of knowing exactly where you are that makes us all feel safer, less anxious, plus there is the feel-good factor of seeing your hard work pay off. There is also something to be said for how amazing it feels when you come from a less well-off home than your peer and yet can compete with them on the same terms. What’s amazing is that I have seen children previously assumed to have some kind of discalculia shoot to the top of the class in maths within weeks of getting stuck into maths competition involving timed practice.

So I’ve talked about how competition brings out the best in us and now I’d like to introduce the concept of some kind of innate need for a (friendly) foe to fight against. I haven’t seen much written on this, although I did find an article on it recently. To me, it seems that without some kind of collective real or fictional foe to fight against, people just fight with themselves or look to the nearest person or group of people and make them the enemy instead. Teenagers are really interesting group to think about in this context. I do wonder if, during puberty, some kind of innate ‘warrior’ manifests and in the absence of a killer tribe in the next village, teenagers opt to make their parents and teachers the collective foe. Perhaps this is one reason why house systems work so well. Instead of fighting teachers or each other, they group together and vie for academic and sporting supremacy against a group of peers.

So, I really think that we should harness children’s innate desire to compete both with friends and with foes in order to get the very best out of them. Why fret and spend hours doing masses of extra interventions when a competition and ranking ‘system’ will do the hard for you by compelling children to push themselves that little bit further. Surely this is an opportunity to be grasped – can you imagine how all children could collectively ‘level up’ and have more pride in their education and school if there were trust-wide, then regional and then national competitions in various subjects/disciplines?

Who’s with me?

*That idiot was me. To be fair, it was the worst weather ever such that almost every female competitor stayed away and I ended up being one of only seven hard-core female competitors in the whole event (and my coach said that out of them all, I was probably the only woman).





2 thoughts on “Why competition is a good thing (and we need more of it in schools)

  1. Good post, I agree that competition is a healthy component in motivation however I would challenge the need for an ‘enemy’. An enemy is simply another manifestation of extrinsic motivation and can certainly be powerful but takes away the focus from producing the best performance you can to beating the ‘enemy’ instead. These don’t necessarily lead to the same positive outcome.

    Competition can be achieved when competing with others, rather than against them. To borrow the sporting analogies, athletes in individual sports often work with their competitors in order to maximise their own performance, when working as a pack during a cycle race for example. The problem with setting your sights on an ‘enemy’ is that once that focus is no longer there then the motivation is often gone with it. We should be aiming to inspire students to produce the very best they can because it’s a great achievement in itself.

    Perhaps by putting up examples of ‘the best that has been thoguht and done’ as a goal and orientating the competiton around this then we can tap in to the benefits of our competitive nature without the need for the negative baggage that comes with an enemy.


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