Competition can be helpful in the classroom – but teachers need to use it carefully

Competition can be helpful in the classroom – but teachers need to use it carefully

When it comes to introducing competition into your classroom, opinion is both fierce and divided. Is a little healthy rivalry useful for motivation? Or should students focus solely on their own achievements? Psychologist Bradley Busch and teacher Dave Marsham discuss the science and practicality of this controversial topic.

"It can motivate and inspire, but must be handled carefully"

Bradley Busch is a chartered psychologist and director of InnerDrive

One of the most famous studies into competition was conducted by researcher Muzafer Sherif in his Robbers Cave study. He divided 22 young boys in two groups. They were all the same age, came from white, middle-class backgrounds, were protestant and lived with both of their parents. In essence, they were as similar as possible.

The boys were put into groups at random and asked to give themselves a name (they chose The Eagles and The Rattlers), design their own flag and make their own uniforms. The power of being part of a group was evident early on. The boys in each group bonded quickly as they shared experiences such as group hikes and swimming parties. The children were very engaged in the tasks they were given and were motivated to actively participate.

Then the two groups met each other and began to compete for limited resources. Without an adult to guide their behaviour, there was a lot of tension between them (to a degree that even surprised the researchers). For example, during a training session before a sports match, the Rattlers even refused to let the Eagles on to the pitch to practice.

The study shows that creating a group culture can help children bond, learn and strive for excellence. It can motivate, inspire and be fun. Left unchecked, however, without adult supervision and when competing for limited resources, competition did more harm than good. In the second part of the study, the focus moved from developing skills within the team to hindering the opposition.

As with most things, it is not what the intervention is, but how it is delivered that matters. Competition can be good if it focuses on:

  • Skills development – process rather than outcomes
  • Self-development – concerned with individual progress rather than comparison
  • Support – challenge must come with assistance to avoid creating stress.

"It teaches respect and improves standards"

Dave Marsham is a maths and history teacher

I've always been an avid football fan so competition comes naturally to me. I find that a sense of competition gets the best out of me and that has affected how I teach: I implement competition into lots of my lessons. As long as it contains a sense of respect, is sustainable and the students don't feel that they are being bribed into good behaviour, it should work.

In the first lesson I do my homework; I find out about the students' behaviour records, their reputations amongst staff, their previous grades and progress. Then I split the class into two and that forms my seating plan. I mix up the students equally between those with challenging behaviour, those who are high-achievers and those who are known to have positive attitudes to learning. These are the teams they will be in all year.

From this moment, everything they do gets points for their team. This varies from who enters the room most quietly to who writes the date, title and objectives the quickest and neatest.

As shown in the study that Bradley cited, competition can generate a lack of respect towards others. The way I combat this is to judge students not only on the speed and quality of their work but also how respectful they are. This makes the students aware that social intelligence and etiquette are things I value and so, in turn, they learn to value them and gain points for their teams.

These points are tallied up at the end of the lesson. Next lesson the tally continues from where it left off. The longer term rewards can be whatever you like – I go for simple prizes such as an achievement point or the privilege of choosing the activity for the last lesson of term at Christmas, Easter and summer. The reward can be whatever you choose but I have found that my students are motivated by the competition, not the reward, so I keep it simple.

These rewards are sustainable and don't cost me time, money or effort. In return I have students competing all year to meet my expectations (which in turn become their own) and make progress.

A reward that they particularly enjoy is getting to choose what both the winning and losing teams get to do in the final lesson of the term – I sometimes cite an example of choosing to play games while the losing team sits a test. But not once has this occurred; the teams have always rewarded each other with something like a film and snacks (a sure sign that the competition hasn't turned into conflict).

It sounds simple. I have seen it fail miserably but only when the teacher hasn't committed fully and used it consistently or has not embedded the important lesson about respect. But it is simple and, for me, so embedded in my teaching practice that I'd be lost without it now.

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