A SchoolHouse for Everyone

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Collaboration is Key

Laura Grill
January 11, 2021

Georgia’s results are in, and the events of last Wednesday scarred (and scared) us all. The recent events shook me, as I am sure it did for many of you. Our country needs to seriously take a long hard look in the mirror and collaborate to make things better. 


Our society focuses too much on competition versus collaboration. And this is difficult to write because I recognize that I am competitive (anyone who knows me would agree). Nevertheless, the emphasis that we put on winning detracts from our bigger goal of helping children feel good about themselves. In order for an individual to win, or to be the winner, someone else needs to lose. 


Alfie Kohn wrote that competition puts an individual at “at cross purposes with others.  Competition makes self-esteem precarious and conditional: One’s value is contingent on how many people one has beaten. Winning feels good for a while, but it never addresses our basic needs for security or competence.” 


I had to read this over a few times. Self-esteem is so important. In some ways, raising self-confident children is the most important thing we can do (because it will feed into so many other beneficial attributes). Being confident and being secure allows an individual to feel happy. I want my children to have a strong sense of self, and I don’t want them to think that they need to win in order to be valued. 


Most research studies conducted concluded that collaboration and learning cooperatively leads to higher achievement versus classrooms and learning experiences that valued competition. I knew this intuitively when I used to go into schools to work with teachers. 


There was one second grade teacher that I met nine years ago, who felt that playing “Around the World” (a game where students try to beat their peers in fluency) would be the way to increase mental math facts. I was appalled. I hope that future students are not subjected to this game, (and I say that knowing that young me would have LOVED this game). The majority of students in the class found it exciting to spectate but often felt like math losers. I pointed out that at best this would help 1-2 students in the class because it would likely be the same 1 or 2 students that would consistently win. The student who always loses is likely not going to be motivated to go home to practice. And what if the person who starts off the year at number one becomes number two or even number three? What feelings of resentment will occur? Or, the student who always wins is likely already fluent, so what is that achieving? The student who wins is the one who gets to play longer and who gets to practice more facts. How is that helping the rest of the students in the class?


A better way to position the desire for fluency practice is to pose a challenge to the class. Can the class solve 10,000 fluency problems? (And no need to keep track of individual practice, just completed worksheets so everyone wins and no one person contributes more to the win). If you think about it, in a class of 25 students, with let’s say 19 days of school in a month, that means each student would only need to complete 21 fluency problems in a day (that’s usually less than a fluency worksheet). So it’s not inconceivable to have a class goal be more like 100,000 or even a million if you had a full school year!


We also want to create environments that celebrate critical thinking, and not only processing speed. We must send the message that deep thinking, and pondering leads to the next invention. Creating (and this is more than completing an algorithm worksheet) with a deadline is not ideal.


Alfie Kohn says it better than I could, “Competition creates envy for winners, contempt for losers, and hostility and suspicion toward just about everyone.  Not only is it irrational to help someone whose success might require your failure, but competition creates a climate in which such help is unlikely to occur in any case.  Researchers have found that competitive structures reduce generosity, empathy, sensitivity to others’ needs, accuracy of communication, and trust.”


We are at a time when our society needs us to be more generous, more empathetic and more sensitive. We are at a time where building trust is key to improving our society. So in everything that we do, and reminding ourselves of our role models role to the next generation we must promote the idea that collaboration is key.