Education, Competition, and Consequences: The Power of Perspective

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Deconstructing the association between competition and education, Robert Nelson and Phillip Dawson explore this relationship in “Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship” (2015). Specifically, Nelson and Dawson attempt to determine whether this association is good or bad. They examine this association from both critical (negative) and appraisal (positive) perspectives. This shows that the authors seek to understand both the negative and positive outcomes of competition within the educational system.

Resembling the rhetorical strategy found in Hutcheon’s article, Nelson and Dawson incorporate historical thoughts and ideas to paint a picture on how attitudes toward competition and education have progressed over time. For example, Nelson and Dawson make reference to Latin, Greek, Spanish, and other etymological roots to understand competition as a term. Furthermore, ideas that were introduced by Nietzsche, Freud, as well as thinkers of the renaissance were described by Nelson and Dawson as having contributed to the conceptualization and definition of competition as an ambiguous term.

From this variety of sources that attempt to define competition, there seems to be disagreement about what it may mean. Negative definitions define it as an individual being situated in opposition against others. Meanwhile, the positive definitions of competition see competition as a collaborative effort between individuals to reach a targeted goal. Nelson and Dawson invites the reader to consider these numerous conceptualizations and definitions of competition with a purpose in mind.

Nelson and Dawson are not introducing these various perspectives and definition of competition as an attempt to confuse the reader. Rather than this, the authors illustrate the complexity and difficulty of understanding competition as an objective concept. This is not to mention that competition is a difficult variable to measure and examine when applied to education. The goal of Nelson and Dawson of diversifying and expanding on the scope of competition (as a concept) is to reveal the fluid nature of its definition. Furthermore, painting the dynamic complexity of competition – as it exists in education – the authors lead the reader to see a spectrum of possible consequences. As the reader begins to understand that competition can hold different meanings for different people, it also provides a forgiving outlook on competition – fostering a possibility for a positive interpretation of competition (competition as beneficial to education).

Salim provides a fascinating interpretation of Nelson and Dawson’s article to argue that this article is a case against competition in education, implying that the authors adopt negative definitions of competition (competition as adverse to education). In addition, Salim connects this negative definition of competition to his personal experiences as a business graduate, where he experienced detrimental effects of competition during his studies.

I disagree that Nelson and Dawson’s article is a case against competition. Although this article resorts to negative framing of competition to criticize certain aspects of competition, the positive definitions of competition are not rejected.

However, this is not to discredit Salim’s claim that competition has negative effects on individuals. This discrepancy of experiences between different people illustrate what Nelson and Dawson attempt to expose: conflicting consequences stemming from a common experience (i.e. competition).

Our thoughts have the ability to influence our actions. Our perspectives on situations impact the actions we choose in response to these situations.

Bringing this back to the article, Nelson and Dawson regard competition as a phenomenon that can be interpreted in both positive and negative lights. This fluidity gives power to the individual the choice of interpretation. What this means is that the individual may choose to perceive competition (in education) either positively or negatively.

Ultimately, the fluid definition of competition suggests that perspective is crucial in shaping the outcomes that an individual experiences. This can be connected to the Thomas Theorem, which states that an outcome is as real as defined or imagined by the individual. To relate this back to competition and education, these findings suggest that an individual’s perspective on ‘the role of competition in education’ may have lasting consequences (e.g. levels of stress (s)he experiences). Should an individual see competition as being a negative component of the educational system, (s)he may encounter more negative outcomes, as opposed to those who perceive competition as positive (or at least not negative).


  1. Thank you for your response to this reading. I think that it’s interesting that you mention the similarities between Nelson & Dawson and Hutcheon’s article. The incorporation of historical events brings the subject into relevancy for different readers. However, I don’t think that Nelson and Dawson are attempting to confuse the reader by not defining competition specifically. Rather, I feel that they leave the definition vague on purpose to allow the reader to incorporate their own definitions of competition.


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