The flaws of favouring competency over competition: a critical analysis of the current educational system

From the point of entering the educational system and even to years after graduation, competition is thoroughly intertwined with dictating how we should perform in school; I must be above a certain percentile, I must have the best grades within my class, and so forth. Understandably, this has led to a surge in mental health problems within youth, signifying the negative effect competition has on students’ performance in schools. After all, many school systems around the world represent the be-all end-all of what the pupil can or cannot achieve later in their careers. Nelson and Dawson’s paper Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarships stands against the notion that competition is necessary for the school system, citing various other ways students can succeed without the need for competition. One example they have brought up revolves around the idea of competency over competition- people should be measured on their capability to accomplish a certain task rather than have that accomplishment be measured against their peers. I agree with that general idea- you certainly do not have to be the best at accomplishing this task to complete this task successfully. That being said, I do not believe it is possible to induce change by switching the current educational system to Nelson and Dawson’s model- I believe the current educational system is flawed in that it favours competition over competency. Not necessarily in the way that education is being taught (although it could be a factor), but rather because of what the educational system represents in society.


In the present day, there have been significant changes so as the improve the mental well-being of students, including the establishment of mental health awareness days, puppy therapy, and even encouraging the students to talk about what it is that troubles them so. Despite the progress made, the school system still inherently encourages competitive behaviours over recognizing competency. As mentioned in Nelson and Dawson’s paper, there is a cycle of anxiety that starts with the parent worrying if their child is progressing at the same rate as other children their age, to teachers feeling anxiety that if their students are not competitive, that that signifies their lack of motivation in the subject matter, to students feeling the pressure that if they were to have anything else other than success, they are a failure. Nelson and Dawson propose that we use a pass-fail system, like a system used on preschool and early years in elementary because children of those ages are observed to be less competitive than their older peers. While potentially feasible, using a pass-fail system throughout the educational system those not leave for room for improvement, also mentioned in Nelson and Dawson’s paper. Should there be a criteria-based system, or even a comment-based system, it still leaves room for propagating anxiety in students; even if they are well-versed in this subject, if they see comments on how to improve from the position they are in, they can use that as a measure to compare themselves against their peers, thus creating the competitive aspect, leading to the anxiety of wanting to see a clean comment section. In a sense, when you have even the slightest aspect of learning that involves criticism, regardless of the constructiveness of it, there is room to have competition.


In the same playing field, when there is a player with a significantly higher skill set or experience compared to your own, it is natural to gravitate towards avoiding confrontation at all. As quoted in Nelson and Dawson paper by Nietzsche, “we do not want to be crushed by figures with whom we cannot compete,” this directly relates to the idea of an unfair match- why would anyone willingly go into a competition, fully knowing the results even before the competition itself starts? The demographic Nelson and Dawson are referring to are those naturally gifted and talented people- while the people certainly could have invested incredible amounts of hard work as well, that too can be considered talent, hence regarding them as incomparable to regular people standards. I have met a few people whom I could not understand what it is that makes them so naturally gifted, seemingly putting less time and energy yet achieving higher results than what I could ever wish for. As a result, also concluded in Nelson and Dawson’s paper, humans resort to not comparing themselves with those gifted people- for most people, if they were to compete, they would most certainly lose confidence in whatever capabilities they have in the field. Although the Canadian school system may differ from other school systems that rely on a ranking system for its’ students, even the criteria-based evaluation still leaves room for the elite groups to exhibit their absolute advantage in that field. Marks, compliments, even subtle gestures by fellow peers and teachers allow for the impression that ‘this person is gifted’ that ‘I will never be able to win against this person’. While proposing ‘task design’ as a counter to the toxic ‘gifted’ mentality can work against reducing these factors, the intrinsic problem lies with how the educational system is set up for future success. Most of us are not told we had the capabilities of becoming an entrepreneur such as Jeff Bezos, or to work as part of tech giants such as Microsoft- those sorts of compliments were always reserved for those whom the teachers recognized personally as being talented. When you are placed against this person that can finish the task considerably better than you can, although you too are successful in completing this task, are the standards still the same in measuring the successful completion of this task? Have the standards not risen because clearly, it is possible for the standards to be at a higher level?


Reflecting measuring art, Nelson and Dawson draw that parallel, comparing individual skill to masterpieces- each having their own unique criteria that cannot be judged on the same standards. I agree with that notion too- no one can be expected to reflect the same exact qualities to the same extent. Likewise, not one person is expected to be able to handle all the tasks by themselves, hence the need for interdependence over competition, as mentioned in Bateson’s speech. I certainly agree with Nelson and Dawson- the idea of a standardized testing is ridiculous. I do not need to know how to find the derivatives of a function if I have no interest in going into mathematics or sciences. Hence, the idea of a criteria system is proposed by Nelson and Dawson to evaluate based on a wide set of factors rather than assigning a number to a piece of work- in their example, it is used in areas of comparing pieces of art. There are definitely areas where this system would work in a school system, but from my understanding, the purpose of going to school is so that you will have a chance to get a stable, well-paying job. If the element of competition between your peers is removed because of this new system, it will then not accurately reflect the situation after graduation. In the future, you will be expected to compete with your peers on your capability to do a certain task; it is assumed that you and all other competitors can already complete the task to its’ full extent. In that case, the employers will look towards hiring based on the best candidate, rather than the capable candidate. In this example, it is understandable as to why the school system has been set up to favour competition over measuring a person’s competency.


Given all of the areas covered by Nelson and Dawson’s research, it is clear that they do have intentions on improving how the current education system works, shifting the focus from a competitive standpoint to a more competency-based one. Despite their goals, I do not think it is possible to completely remove the element of competition or to even reduce it to an extent where competition does not negatively affect youth based on their model. As we can see, there are inevitable components of competition that do drive motivation and willingness to study- it spices up the otherwise bland content. Just as we cannot expect every single person to be interested and motivated in studying every required subject in school, it is ridiculous to think that students will be equally motivated to study every subject without an external factor driving their pursuit. On the same note, when first entering a job market, you are not assessed on if you can complete a certain task (as that is the minimum expectation upon applying for a position), you are expected to compete against your fellow peers to see who can complete the same task with better efficiency, results, or quality. Given these following reasons and holes in Nelson and Dawson’s paper Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarships, I do think that competition and education are two inseparable elements, due to the flawed educational system we have in place.


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