Good or Bad? Hard To Say.

Robert Nelson and Phillip Dawson’s paper, “Competition, education and assessment; connecting history with recent scholarship” acknowledges the need for philosophical research in the field of competition in education. The authors outline the issue of students relying on extrinsic competitive urges rather than “an enthusiasm grown from within” and call for the restoration of the integrity of learning, asserting that competition is not necessary to learning. While investigating the good and bad aspects of competition in education, they advocate for “moderation in educational competition”. This implies the conclusion that competition can be harmful to learning, raising a number of questions that may challenge the absoluteness of this conclusion. One to investigate is whether competitive testing is more valuable or harmful to students and their learning.

An ingrained part of the majority of school systems, testing is used to put a numerical value on the work of students in order to be able to compare them against each other as well as track their progress. As outlined by the article, competition in this form (insecure striving to compete) has been accused of leading to psychological harm, as a result of higher levels of anxiety, depression, and feeling inferior.  These effects of competition especially target students already suffering from depression and other mental afflictions that might make them vulnerable to this kind of pressure, meaning the psychological harm of competition in school varies depending on the student in question.

Nelson and Dawson address Nietzsche’s idea of constructing a genius that “puts superior performances beyond the scope of comparison”, a measure that would allow people to avoid the self-destruction and psychological damage that comes with competing against a virtually unbeatable rival. Perhaps this strategy could lessen the harm of competition.  However, it may not be entirely applicable to competition in school, seeing as students in the same class usually experience fairly equal opportunity to succeed. Additionally, proximity, as in a class, gives the illusion that something is more attainable even if certain students are more naturally gifted. In the same vein, competition is often considered a source of motivation but can just as easily lead to discouragement, seeing as poor test results can be interpreted by a student as statistical evidence that they are “bad” at a certain subject. For example, repeatedly low test scores in math will often lead a child to the conclusion that they are simply “bad” at math, thereby labelling themselves as such, creating a psychological barrier to improvement and potentially even an inferiority complex. In the same way competition may have more severe consequences for students who suffer from mental ill-health, it may also unequally affect students who lack affinities for particular subjects and those with learning disabilities.

This reasoning is somewhat supported by Garcia et al.’s findings in their paper, ‘Perspectives on Psychological Science’, where they point out that norm-referencing, although more effective in boosting motivation, can have a hidden cost. However, this paper identifies the intermediately ranked students as those at risk (according to their model) rather than those found at the bottom of the rankings, as they are “more likely to become less motivated than those at the extremes”.    Regardless, the verdict is that competition provokes different reaction in different people, and so the degree of harm promoting competition may result in cannot be fully determined – only acknowledged.

Conversely, the value drawn from competitive testing is also open to discussion. Garcia et al. state that competition can be detrimental to learning but admit that “increasing competitiveness may be better suited for test-taking and similar situations”. It’s value is diminished, however, by the following assertion that it is only useful after already learning the material and learning goes from a group activity (in class) to an individual endeavour (testing). Nevertheless, consolidation constitutes a valuable part of the learning process, and, in the context of the question whether competitive testing is more valuable or harmful, Garcia et al. statements frame competitive testing as a means to enhance learning. This leads into the question of whether the value of competitive testing outweighs the harm.

Standardised testing has undoubtedly become an integral component of most school systems for a reason. It allows for the comparing of students, a necessary exercise to identify which students are falling behind relative to their peers and which may require extra stimulus to prevent boredom. Competitive testing can be seen as necessary to determine whether students are actually learning and where the greatest strengths and weaknesses lie, both in the individual students and in the education system itself, as well as allow for nation-wide comparisons to identify struggling areas. For these reasons, it is surprising that Finland would pursue an education policy that promotes limiting competition in school and keeping the number of assessments to a minimum, as discussed in ‘Finland: A New Model of Education’. In this model, there are no mandated standardised tests, except a final exam at the end of senior year in high school. How, then, would educators know whether their syllabi are adequate and their teaching styles effective through middle school and all the years leading up to the final exam? Even if progress is tracked through feedback and less competitive forms of assessment it would be difficult to compare one 8th grade class’ progress to that of another – an issue for policy-makers in education.

The challenges faced by policy-makers relating to testing and the promotion or elimination of competition are partially unsolvable, as the best solution for society may not correspond with that of an individual child. Answering the question of whether competitive testing (and, by extension, competition in education) is valuable or harmful to a student’s learning cannot be done definitively, since children react to competition differently depending on ability and mindset. The answer to the question therefore lies in the key phrase “it depends”. In the greater context of Nelson and Dawson’s idea that the integrity of learning has to be restored and that competition should be used in moderation, this answer demands answers to further questions such as “To what extent is it possible to eliminate competition?” and “Is an intrinsic passion for learning on its own a realistic motivator for children in school?” in order to be of value. Answers to all the questions posed in this text must factor into the final decisions of policy-makers and the discovery of the balance between too much and too little competition.

Photograph by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post via Getty

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