Competition? Depends on what you Connote it with: A response to “Competition, education and assessment: connecting history with recent scholarship”, by Robert Nelson & Dawson Phillip

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Competition, currently in the educational system, is certainly a topic of discussion for whether it will or will not help students learn, perform, become creative or curious, or become competent in what they ultimately pursue. However, the definition of what exactly competition is or what its place is is very ambiguous and its applications are dependent on what is perceived as competition and even if that perception is positively or negatively interpreted. Understanding the definition and its implications, as Nelson and Dawson explore in their paper using historical connotations in relevance to recent discoveries, is crucial in relevance to constituting what the effects are in education or any other dimension are by what is or isn’t defined by “competition”.

Dawson and Phillip claim that the words very understanding is dependent on context. Essentially, competition is only defined pragmatically when looking at different cases before the definition of what the word means is constituted. This means that different premises of competition are used when analyzing situations, then driving a positive and negative interpretation for the situation and bringing it back to competition, or at least what the initial premise of what competition is in that context. The authors dive into the history of “competition” and have found that its Greek roots means that the word means to “strive together”, meaning that it can be applied for peaceful congregation or for battle. Essentially, the word itself can be applied to completely different scenarios due to its ambiguous applications. As the authors found out, the roots do not imply striving “against”, only with someone else. The paper discusses how assessing students impacts how they learn, whether they are norm-referenced or criterion referenced. Students perform better when they are criterion referenced. However, this does not mean that they no longer are striving for the absolute objective together, but the objective is now made clear and is no longer perceived relatively. Essentially, competition, as understanding it from the latin roots, does not have to be taken out of the system here. However, given that to compete and be “educated” means to reach an arbitrary goal that is dependent on the ordinal stacking that an individual has with another poses a problem that curiosity is taken out of the equation and that a clear model to conform to is not given, meaning that there is no direction. Here, competition can be negatively viewed, only since it meant that the actor’s success is only relative to one another and not based on the degree of fit that their work matches a model. @dankim17 ‘s post, (, being 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” can further explain that competition’s usage as a word is determined on how it is viewed, which is determined by how it is defined in context.

The article’s structure in its elucidation on how competition fits with different viewpoints, including its mentioning of Nietzhsche’s claim that competition thwarts curiosity and shifts the focus from intrinsic motivation to learn to learn towards extrinsic compulsion to achieve (using the two types of speaker analogy), can be compared to other articles observed, such as Hutcheon, which define competition as an induction of agonism, or the willingness to speak only to defeat one’s opponent and not learn. This comparison takes on a more negative approach to competition since it is based on the relativity of winning an argument instead of using a model to strive towards, as explained by Dawson and Phillip in their interpretation of “divine” works, creating models instead of potential rivals. However, two actors can still both compete to strive towards those models, but success can still be measured by the degree of fit with their works to the model and not only their works in relationship with one another. Given this premise that an absolute objective is present, Dawson and Phillip claim that students would rather give peer feedback, rather than peer grading, as a means of peer assessment, giving more deterministic powers to an arbitrator who can use a model to base their work on. In this case of “competition”, students are still striving for an objective together, but their “assessment” of one another is based on feedback and not a definite value judgement of their works, leaving that to a judge who uses a criterion-model to compare their works to. Both cases where the different absorptions of what competition consists of are vital to understand because competition, in a vast scale, can be understood as positive or negative in different dimensions, whether it be education or otherwise, depending on the connotations that are associated with what competition is or what situations we pragmatically associate its existence.

The definitions that we associate with certain words are essential to understand, even their roots and contemporary pragmatic use so that the judgement that is passed on to those words is given, whilst knowing all of the connotations that the word has been given with. This is especially true for competition and how it is understood. Whilst one may claim of how competition is present in one field can be based on a premise of what competition is, which can differ from another premise of what competition is when determining its presence in another dimension. Hence, in comprehending exactly which premise is used when making a normative claim on competition can give clarity on why the validity of the normative claim may be vast while another opposing normative claim on competition may also be valid as an alternative premise of the connotations of competition were presumed.


  1. Hey, this was a really amazing response I really enjoyed it. I just want to ask, don’t you think that the word “competition” must have one universal meaning, instead of understanding it only based on context? Through out the term we have been looking at how the word is perceived differently in different papers, only one paper tried to make us understand what “competition” is and that is the paper of Werron. Don’t you think that work like this one is to be done first before looking at the influence of competition?


  2. Thank you for the comment @yraasn. The history of the word of “competition” has changed according to the Oxford Dictionary. The common definition is “The activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.”. That definition in itself can be interpreted and applied differently according to a situation. What do they mean by superiority? Are they implying dominance or simply more competence? According to this author, using the context is crucial in understanding the message of the paper. Definitions should not be malleable in order to prevent ambiguity. That being said, facts are usually looked at first before definitions in order to observe the world with observance. We give names to things. However, meaning is created when we combine several words together to form a combination of which the statement’s meaning, itself, changes. I hope this clears up any misunderstandings.


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