Competition in Education-who are the winners and losers?

Nelson and Dawson’s article on ‘Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship’ is an account which presents current competition within education contrasted with history. The competition in education is critiqued by examples ‘in education and society at large’, such as their development of historical record of attitudes to competition. Examples such as Vasari’s view of competition is contrasted against peer assessments in modern higher education. The Nietzschean critique on competition is also cited, arguing that competition should be limited or even eliminated as it stifles free curiosity. The author also placed a particular emphasis demonstrating that understanding of competition is in fact, prone to change according to the context. By deconstructing the assumptions in competition the authors are then able to analyze and understand competition pedagogically. Philologically, the author analyzed the different etymological usages of the word “competition” in modern and historical terms. The authors concluded with the view that the assumption that education is about setting people up in competition with one another should be essentially abandoned to restore the integrity of learning.

One particular point of interest in the article is the philological and etymological examination of the origins of ‘competition’, which it is derived from a Latin preposition meaning ‘with’ or ‘together with’ and the verb ‘to strive’, as well as stating its Greek origins with the meaning of striving together (συνάγω) such as peaceful congregation. Although it has different meaning through different contexts, in any case the connotations are not related to being against anything or anyone. There is an interesting resemblance as Linda Hutcheon also examined etymologically the origins of ‘competition’, in her work Rhetoric and Competition. She referenced the word ‘agon (ἀγών)’, which also only had the connotations of a gathering or assembly but now applied to for situations such as contest, debate, and struggle. Upon further research, there are in fact etymological ties between the usage of agon (ἀγών) as well as striving together(συνάγω), seeing that striving together(συνάγω) itself contains the word root of agon (ἀγών). To generalize, I think the way both authors use historical evidence to examine the meaning of ‘competition’ further their arguments on the critique of competition. For a reader especially in their relevant discourse communities, it would also provide backing for their respective arguments. This also fulfills the intention of Nelson and Dawson as they believe that a historical framework provides them invaluable records and understanding towards the concept, in this case of competition.

In this increasingly competitive environment, I essentially agree to the author’s view that the globalized culture is saturated with competition in all aspects of life. Held as the origin of progress, competition has transformed into an ideology, which enforces and institutionalize the notion of struggle and competition. The effects of competition on education can clearly be seen, such as the use of norm-referenced assessments. In Wales, which I previously studied, the high school examination systems (A-Levels) are calculated using ‘curves’. Essentially, the performance of the students are compared with each other to determine grade boundaries. This might seem fair when students are competing for university spaces, as there are already a predetermined amount of ‘high achievers’ on the curve. If more students far better, the grades boundaries will shift and the number of people who get top grades will still be limited, which they would most likely succeed and proceed into higher education. As Turnbull has stated, this fosters unhealthy competition and is also evident to me.

From a societal standpoint, students from a less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds are often discriminated in such assessments, as they lack resources compared to the well off students, such as access to tutoring or private schools. It is also often observed that depressed areas lack means of access to quality education. In Wales most top-performing schools are private or situated in more affluent area whereas those which are below average are usually situated in the Welsh Valleys, where unemployment is high and average wages 20% lower than Cardiff, the capital city. Those less privileged might also have to face more difficulties in life, further hindering their education and amplifies the damage of norm-referenced assessments on those students. More often than not they achieve poorer than students from a better background, causing generational poverty. They are unable to earn more due to the lack of higher education. Not to put too fine a point on it, I simply disagree with nathanl4590‘s explanation in the creation on students who ‘stand out’. The ‘geniuses’ would most likely have received quality education; essentially nurtured before becoming one, with the right conditions and the right background. However, there are also arguments stating how positive discrimination to help those from poorer backgrounds to attend universities. Whilst this is true, the issue is that this does not solve the problem norm-referenced assessments create in an unequal playing field.

The need for sustainable assessments are apparent at least in high school assessments, as norm-referenced assessments does not take into account unfair competition, as well as the motivation and the incentive to learn. More resources should also be provided to less privileged communities, as curiosity-driven learning would also require support and some degree of knowledge. At the end of the day, education should be comprised of curious-minded individuals striving together, as envisioned by the authors.


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