Does an Academically Competitive Atmosphere

An academically competitive atmosphere does not foster student-interest in learning or the ability to work effectively in projects requiring cooperation.  There is evidence that students interpret the reason for doing well as the consequence that follows performance (McKeough & Lupert, 1991).  Either implicitly (without conscious awareness) or explicitly, “winning,” i.e., receiving a higher grade than others, becomes the reason for performing.

In other words, if students are reading in order to outperform others, the likely result is not realizing that reading can be interesting and rewarding – thus, they do not become adults who read.  The consequence for students who realize they will never be able to do well in “the race to read” is likely to be the conclusion that it’s pointless to keep trying – so, like the better readers, they too are not likely to read as adults.  Thus, no-one “wins” in terms of gaining a genuine interest in learning that continues over the lifespan. Of course, some students do find learning rewarding, regardless of how they are taught.  However, few adults enjoy reading serious books, which is an indication that the typical competitive atmospheres provided at most schools do not result in an interest in reading.

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How, then, does one teach in a way that does foster a genuine interest in learning.  Perlmutter and Burrell (1991) presented techniques that have been in demonstrations of model teaching.  One technique was setting up work stations, where children chose the kind of work they would do (eventually, they were guided to use all of the stations).  For example, working at the carpentry station required writing and following an outline of the steps and materials required to complete a building project, i.e., they practiced writing because it had value as a carpentry guide.  Similarly, working at the animal station (containing a variety of different small animals) required knowing about the needs of the different animals, information obtainable through reading.

Why do students need to become effective in working cooperatively?  First, with the exception of writers, artists, and others who do solitary work, just about everyone needs to work with others.  Instead of pretending to be cooperative, while trying to stab other group members in the back, genuine cooperation enhances the work produced by the group.  Children can learn early to work effectively in groups (van Oers & Hannikainem, 2001).

For example, in a small group working on a science project about earthquakes, different students contribute to gathering information, writing final copy, producing artwork, a model of an earthquake, etc. Aside from enjoying the project, students recognize that the finished product is better than it would have been if one student were assigned the project.  The use of “jigsaw groups” (Aronson & Bridgeman, 1979) fosters cooperation because each group member has a piece of information needed for completing a project.

In summary, if the goals of educational institutions are to help students become adults who value learning throughout their lives and understand that cooperation can be rewarding, academically competitive atmospheres do not foster these goals.