I woke up, glanced at the previous night’s football results – as I always do before jumping into the shower / bath – and, as soon as my head hit the water, I surprised myself with a thought:
“What would life be like without all this competition?’
It’s not that the team I follow are doing badly, in fact they’re top of the league (as I write), but what is it that makes me want the team below to lose so badly? Should I really care that much? What difference does caring about something I can neither control nor contribute to make anyway? Surely I’d be better off starting my day focusing on something I can influence?
The more I reflect on sport, education, daily life, the more I’m sensitized to just how much is about winning vs. losing. Reflect on it for a minute with me. What does it say about the value we place on the poetic and expressive languages we all possess when Grammys, Man bookers, Oscars, elevate the few? To judge art as “good” or “bad” misses the purpose of art – surely? In Britain there is an Honours System that rewards achievement, bravery, service, etc. Every year it feels like sport is the closest thing to knights on horseback. Call me naive, but I’d like to think the thought of a reward wasn’t what drove most of these people towards chivalry.
To do your best, make the A team, ‘ace’ that test, get ahead, and win at all costs, represent some of the many competitive narratives that mommy’s little champion and / or daddy’s precious princess can expect to enter at birth. When a young child receives comments like ‘Aren’t you just gorgeous’ or ‘That is such a beautiful picture’ or ‘If you just do X, then you can have Y’ then there is a real danger they’ll spend their lifetime seeking extrinsic rewards.
In Creating cultures of thinking, author Ron Ritchaart suggests competition is, ‘practically baked into our system of education, in which rankings, GPAs, and exam scores are used as measures of accomplishment and criteria for admission to university programs.’ Ritchaart questions the idea that learning needs to be competitive (p. 27-28), and encourages us to:
…settle for nothing less than environments that bring out the best in people, take learning to the next level, allow for great discoveries, and propel both the individual and the group forward into a lifetime of learning’Ritchaart (p. 5,6).
Similarly, the author Brian McLaren (2012), questions the kind of world we’ve created with our historically hostile narratives of assimilation, competition, domination, isolation, purification, revolution, and self-preservation. He asks if we wouldn’t all be better off with benevolence, collaboration, community, hospitality, inclusion, generosity, unity, solidarity? Crafting a different story for schools, Ritchaart asks educators, parents & citizens to consider:
- What if schools were less about preparing students for tests and more about preparing them for a lifetime of learning?
- What if schools measured success not by what individuals did on exams but by what groups were able to accomplish together?
- What if schools took the development of students’ intellectual character as their highest calling?
- What if understanding and application of skills and knowledge rather than the acquisition of knowledge were the goal?
- What if students were really engaged in their learning rather than merely compliant in the process of school as it is done to them?
- What if students had more control of their learning?
In this new narrative, ‘…classrooms, and organizations become places in which a group’s collective as well as individuals’ thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members’ (p. 29-31). Its reminiscent of primary schools in New Zealand, where 3 classes of up to 30 children share ‘modern learning environments’ that are flexible enough to facilitate learning as one large collaborative, in ability groups, small groups – working independently or alongside a teacher -pairs, or alone.
Although New Zealand was one of our last stops as we researched what the world has to offer in terms of quality education over 10 weeks in 2018, it was the first place I was struck by how teachers’ belief in the capability, creativity, curiosity, intelligence and active participation of children in their learning, meant they didn’t just encourage collaboration but expected children to share their challenges, insights, learning, observations, thinking, etc., because we arrive that the best by building on the ideas of others. Schools in Blenheim, on the Northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, practiced what Ron Ritchaart calls ‘ice-creaming’ – where children’s ideas develop, emerge, expand, form, and so on, as they rest on the foundations that are created by the preceding ideas of other children in their class.
Teachers at the best child-centred inquiry based schools we experienced around the world modeled a collaborative non-competitive culture in the way that they planned, documented children’s learning, reflected together and taught: co-learning alongside their leadership, peers, children and parents.
As the future leaders of the school in South Africa, Rachel and I have a growing sense of the importance of creating a culture which wakes up to the possibilities of collaboration – to the potential of ‘us’ – and how this will be fundamental as we seek to facilitate quality, diverse and accessible education. The dynamic balance between assessment, whilst encouraging intrinsic motivation intrigues me.
Is it possible to create a culture where children – from a very young age – record, review, reflect and redirect their own learning? Will greater self awareness mean children will know how to be the best versions of themselves, not in competition but collaboration with others?
While they may seem contradictory, the two leadership pillars of self awareness – identifying motivating core values and beliefs – and ingenuity – embracing new approaches, strategies, ideas and cultures – are intimately linked. Energy is created when they fuseLowney C., 2005. Heroic Leadership, p.250).