What is it to be in schools – competition or cooperation?

20 Apr

Many eons ago, as the education officer for schools in a London local authority, I was given strict instructions not to promote competition among youngsters – especially in sport.  The reason?   It was important to build the self-esteem of all pupils.  Putting pupils in a “lose” situation would deflate them.   The concept of winners and losers was anathema.  All must have prizes.

Zafar Ansari, the Surrey cricketer and Cambridge graduate with a double fist in politics and sociology had decided to retire from the sport at the tender age of 25. He was struggling to cope with the competitive ethos in cricket which he intensely disliked.

Ansari wrote in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack: “It goes without saying that competition is a foundation of sport: to be competitive is clearly an advantage, providing the mental framework to maximise the chances of success. Yet, as my career progressed, I felt uncomfortable conducting myself in this way. This feeling emerged, in part, from a broader left-wing perspective, which informed my approach to life.”

He was also wary of “a professional culture that treated the uncompromising pursuit of victory as essentially virtuous.” Ansari has now quit professional cricket and is working for Just for Kids, a charity which supports underprivileged children, while studying to become a lawyer.

Matthew Syed, author and The Times sports journalist, was critical of Ansari.  He predicted that “the longer he (Ansari) lives in the world beyond sport, the more he will come to value the ethos of competition and individual accountability he has left behind”. He rhetorically wondered whether competition between individuals drove progress in sport.  After all, competition in businesses led to economic growth and spurred progress in science.

This left me, a reader, perplexed.  The education world is filled with examples of the benefits of co-operation (as opposed to competition).   A recent outstanding case is the London Challenge, when Sir Tim Brighouse led a project encouraging schools and academies in the capital to work together making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.   The capital’s schools and academies have flourished in the main, since then.

We have seen the deleterious effects of examinations and league tables, with some schools and academies gaming the system.   Schools and academies are exhorted to encourage youngsters (and adults) to strive to achieve because of the intrinsic value of excelling.   Isn’t there merit in reaching the mountain top for the sake of one’s own internal satisfaction?

So, are our children to be encouraged to compete and shine or co-operate and shine?   What are we to teach our children?

Syed argues that the world of charities in which Ansari is currently working has disappointed “precisely because they have been “insufficiently exposed to competition”.   To prove his point, he cites Professor William Russell Easterly, an American economist, who specialises in economic development.  Easterly averred that “utopian aid programmes have failed to spur economic development in poor countries because they are rolled out without any proper test of whether they are working”.  When the targets, such as ensuring universal access to water and sanitation by the turn of the millennium, were missed, no one was held responsible.

Competitive sport encourages meritocracy. When this is extended to other fields of human activity by awarding accolades for summits reached, they promote progress.   Take the Nobel prizes, for instances.   People who excel and reach the acme of their disciplines are applauded by and act as shining lights to the rest of us.

But competition can also be destructive.   Take the balling-tampering scandal of a few Australian cricketers and the recent banking crisis that resulted in a financial meltdown in 2008.  Excessive competition to come first in examinations creates stress levels in youngsters that sometimes lead to suicides.

That apart, competition can result in talented people working in isolation. They are reluctant to share their learning and potential inventions with others making it that much harder for them to succeed in what they want to achieve.

So, should we co-operate – always?   Communism promoted that notion – and when it took root in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and China, resulted in the dictatorships of Stalin and Mao and the demolition of vast segments of their populations.   You may well argue that it was not co-operation, per se, that created such tragedies but rather the absolute powers that were reposed in two people that led to their absolute corruption and the suffering of the many.

So where do we go from here and what do we tell our children?   I submit that we need both, competition and co-operation, with appropriate checks and balances.    The competition which can be promoted in our schools and academies should lead to prizes but tempered with applause for those youngsters who also strive greatly, make great progress yet fail to become leaders of the pack.   Co-operation must be circumscribed with words of warning that everyone in the group are urged to work equally hard – that there are no slackers.  Also, there must be give and take, with no one person domineering and ruling the roost.

It took a single person, Edison, working very hard and failing over 2,000 times, to invent the light bulb.   It also took a team under the leadership of Colonel John Hunt that created the conditions under which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first human beings to reach the Everest summit in 1953.


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