The story of Competition in Education

‘Competition, Education and Assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship’ assesses the meaning of ‘competition’ using the historical critiques and philological methods. The article sheds light over competition in such a way that its white body and dark shadow illuminate at the same platform, allowing the reader to balance the black and the white faces of competition and contemplate the very ‘soul’ of it while deconstructing and reconstructing their beliefs of competition in the context of education.

Even though competition saturates all the global fields today, small contemporary educational structures(‘Pass grade only’) can be found with no mix of competition. Nelson and Dawson have built the structure of their argument in favor of such non-competitive educational institutions, therefore, prioritizing their biased belief over insisting on a more ‘de facto’ comprehension of competition. They kick-start their reasoning by arguing that competition and assessment were never a part of the learning system existing in the times of Socrates. Music, battle, and sports might have conceived a few notions of competition but education was never a part of this trinity. Further, they derive the fact that ‘Competition is a circumstance where every winner has a loser as a counterpart’ by illustrating a reciprocal relationship of anxiety between teachers and students with competition being the around which one is happier at other’s expense. Broadly speaking about competition, good in competition has surely been identified in the form of ‘lifting the game’, constant improvement in goods and services, falling prices, origin of progress among nations(whether military or industrial, scientific or artistic), progress in playing a sport, et cetera but such good is rebutted by psychological studies on students showing that ‘an insecure striving to compete is associated with psychological harm: fears of rejection, need for validation, hypercompetitive attitudes, feeling inferior to others, submissive behavior, and indicators of stress, anxiety, and depression’, which begs the question ‘Are the benefits of competition worth in any field at the cost of stable mental health of the participants of that field?’

The word competition derives from a Latin preposition meaning ‘with’ (cum) and the verb ‘to strive’ (petere) which make the meaning of competition radically opposite to our perceptions, ‘to strive with’ rather than ‘to strive against’. This meaning makes competition fall more in a spectrum of ‘Cooperation’ which is generally defined as ‘the process of working together to the same end’.

Nelson and Dawson analyze higher education assessment practices: norm-referenced assessment(evaluating students against each other) and criterion-referenced assessment(evaluating students against pre-determined criteria). On the basis of historical research, they argue that norm-referenced assessment fosters unhealthy competition, supporting their statement by the fact that rand of a student relative to others does not give any information about the student’s academic achievement. If we were to look at criterion-referenced education, we find that its true meaning lies in teachers and students striving with each other whereas ‘striving against’ has become a common element of today’s reality.

Nelson and Dawson also explore the field of art and creativity to explore competition more profoundly. Quoting Vasari’s thoughts, Nelson and Dawson acknowledge the role of competition as an incentive in boosting performance as artists are able to come up with amazing novelties under pressure. They also exemplify the situation of creation of a deputation by Brunelleschi and Donatello to cede the palm of Ghiberti for painting of The Baptistry doors which gives us a charming example of rivals brought together by competition and of peer assessment initiated by the assessed but in contemporary times, an analogy to higher education gives us the view that students resist the processes of peer assessment(Liu and Carless 2006). They would have begged the jury to make a decision rather than accepting their rival a better.

Why is competition better in the artistic field as compared to academics?

The above example illustrates it. Competition in art not only makes the individual better, but it also makes the world more beautiful and comfortable. In contrast, the rarity of high grades created by competitive norm-referenced assessment is an artificial scarcity and does not make the world beautiful and comfortable.

Secondly, competition fostered curiosity-driven learning in the minds of the artists whereas it has created a superficial learning in the field of Academics. To get better GPA (as shown by Richardson, Abraham, and Bond), students strategic learning over deep learning, grade goals over intrinsic motivation, and concentration over agreeableness. Reliance on extrinsic competitive urges fails to take up the educational opportunity of greatest virtue: to cultivate affection for the field and the intrinsic beauty of thinking about it.

The article by Nelson and Dawson patiently highlights the dark side of the competition with examples from history and philology. It weighs it against its good side, but the dark sides outweigh the light one. Towards the end, they successfully manage to present an incentive to separate education from competition in the minds of the reader but fail to provide any solution beyond that. But on the other hand, they appreciate the progress that competition has allowed in the areas of music, art, and sports but at the same time prove it to be a bad influence in the academic arena and advocate for its moderation to foster more learning and curiosity.


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