Cooperative learning is a big concept in schools today and for good reason. Helping students learn to work together and to solve problems as a team is a life-long skill that schools should encourage. I often hear, on the other hand, that schools, especially elementary schools, should not promote competition, but instead should only encourage cooperation. I must strongly disagree with this statement.
As part of my research for my dissertation, I reviewed many studies on talent development and how children reach high levels of achievement in different fields. I also worked with Disney, Six Flags, and Paramount Studios by interviewing performers in their live-entertainment shows to determine what common variables led to success in being hired. Often, being able to deal effectively with competition came up as a variable.
The research supports that for children to reach high levels of achievement in a field of study, they have to be able to deal with competition and prove themselves in a competitive setting. I believe a school has the responsibility to give children opportunities to be involved in competition, to give them the chance to see how they compare to others. This will give them concrete feedback on what they need to do to improve. It is in elementary school when students are most willing to listen to our guidance and willing to follow it. Elementary children who do not do well in a competitive setting and who have a desire to improve can then be given assistance in how to improve. If they truly have the desire, they can put in the time to practice and reach that level. This is one reason why I support having a spelling bee program. Some children love to spell and others enjoy it but are afraid of failing. We can give students who want to experience this challenge the opportunity. We can then take the opportunity to help those children who are afraid of failing.
Many children and adults are afraid of failure, and as elementary teachers we have a wonderful opportunity to help children learn to deal with failure in a positive way. We probably learn more from our failures than we do from our successes, but this will only happen if we learn to be confident in ourselves and open to the learning experience it brings. In elementary school, we have the opportunity to teach children to deal with failure and to learn from it. We begin to lose this in middle school where children are breaking away from adults and focusing more on peers. If we do not provide opportunities for competition, then we are missing great opportunities for learning.
If you would like to read more about competition or talent development in children, I can recommend a couple excellent books. The first book, See Jane Win by Sylvia Rimm, shares an interesting study of 1,000 females, many of whom became very successful women. One of the variables that was common among the successful women was their involvement in competitive sports or music as children. She sees this as a key to their success and believes schools too often prepare boys for the competitive world, but instead teach girls to be cooperative and not prepared for the competitive nature of getting into a good college or getting a great job.
The second book is Developing Talent in Young People by Benjamin Bloom. Bloom and his team interviewed successful adults in many different fields and came up with several common variables that seemed to bring these young students to very successful careers. One of those variables was dealing effectively with competition.
Now, I am not saying that elementary schools should only promote competition and make it the major focus of their day. What I am saying is, we should not be avoiding these opportunities to give children competitive experiences, especially when the research so strongly supports the necessity of dealing well with competition to be successful in adult life. I understand that some people will argue they are not trying to make their child a rocket scientist, but I do not believe our job at this level is to make those determinations. Our job is to give all children the skills to make choices and be prepared to reach whatever level they choose, even the highest level in a field. So, let’s not run from competition, but incorporate it wisely and use it as a great learning experience for our students.