Love Affair: Reflections on a Sacred Cow

Imagine this.

Your doctor is standing before you, asking you to choose between taking a red pill and a blue pill. Concerned with due diligence, you ask what the difference is.

“Well, the red pill causes higher levels of anxiety”, she begins. “It’s also linked to higher levels of depression, leads to more injuries, and those injuries tend to be more serious.”

The quizzical look on your face doesn’t slow her down. “In studies between those taking the red and the blue pill, those taking the red tend to show lower levels of empathy.” The doctor has now registered the concern on your face. “Of course, since the red pill is so popular with people, it’s undergone a re-branding campaign to protect its image, and we now refer to it as the healthy red pill. We tell them to take less of it, or approach it with a better attitude.”

You wonder if that’s a little bit like approaching mercury poisoning with a better attitude, but manage to ask instead if, notwithstanding the disadvantages, there are certain benefits to the red pill that are undeliverable by the blue.

“Let’s see,” she says, scanning the labels. “Well there is one thing. The blue pill doesn’t leave you with the feeling of joy associated with trouncing someone.”

The blank stare on your face prompts her to try again. “You know, crushing someone. Triumphing over them. Putting them in their place. Showing them you’re better than they are. The feelings associated with those things.” “Oh,” you say grimly, “Nothing else?”

“Well, many people believe that the red pill causes higher achievement levels,” says the doctor with a confident smile. “Many people believe that it does?” you say with an eyebrow raised. “Well,” she hesitates, “actually, research has shown that higher levels of achievement and creativity seem to require the complete absence of the red pill. Notwithstanding people’s beliefs, the higher levels of anxiety and the focus the red pill creates on ‘winning’ seem to get in the way of ‘excellence’.” “I’ll take the blue,” you whisper. “I thought you might,” she whispers back.

Frankly, I’m confused at the education system’s love affair with competition (the red pill). For decades research has consistently condemned mutually exclusive goal attainment- where one person or group’s success depends on another’s failure, and called into question the notion that competition in any form would be considered healthy. And yet, in our schools, intramurals and tournaments are pervasive, and the use of marks and grades are as entrenched as ever. I thought, naively, that when Alfie Kohn published his book “No Contest: The Case Against Competition” and summarized for us the dozens and dozens of comparative studies looking at competition and cooperation (the blue pill) that we could all now all link research with practice and come up with some healthy alternatives.

And there are many. Fifteen years ago at the small alternative school I work at I decided to start small. I put away the megaphone that I used to update the game score every 30 seconds, and then stopped announcing the score at all. Students who came up to me after the games wanting the final tally were met with “I can’t remember, but it looked like fun.” Then I began taking traditional games like soccer, volleyball and basketball, and mucking with the rules in a way that made keeping score impossible to do, or simply nonsensical.

“Almost Soccer” is played with at least 4 teams and pylons are used on each side of a regular playing field to make the nets. Each of the four goalies tailors the net length to their ability and desire for challenge. The goal of the game is to score on any goalie other than your own. Play is continuous and there are at least 6 soccer balls on the field at a time. Additional challenges and rules are negotiable, and can apply to individuals or the group as a whole.

By the time our third game of Almost Soccer had rolled around, I had one goalie choosing to wear flippers (“I need a bigger challenge, David”), three students sprinting a length of the field after scoring and before returning to play (“Better cardio, you understand.”), and several groups of three tying their ankles together to roam 4-legged after the soccer balls (“We just need to have exclusive access to a few special balls if you’re attached to someone.”). It wasn’t until I looked closely at a string of 7 players that were all attached at the ankles and laughing their way towards a goalie that I realized that several in the line-up came from different teams.

Realize that in Almost Soccer, the only limit to the amount of challenge is your imagination. At least six times as many players are involved in direct play with the ball at any given moment, and it is impossible to keep score in any way. How indeed would scoring on a 2 meter wide net count as compared to a net that is somewhat larger, or somewhat smaller? With continuous play it is impossible to keep track of all goals scored for and against other teams. From the usual roster of reasons for enjoying competition, the only one that isn’t possible to satisfy in this particular game is the pleasure of beating someone.

There’s no reason to play traditional games at all, really. When an online search for “cooperative games” turns up more than 4 million ‘hits’, your biggest challenge is to find the ones that best fit your students’ ages and abilities.

I like a game called Bump and Scoot, where two ‘teams’ face each other on the volleyball court. Whenever a player successfully volleys the ball over the net, he or she switches sides by scooting under the net during play. Several players may conceivably switch sides during a single play, but each player is only allowed to switch once. The game ends when every single player has switched sides. What this means is that actually there is only one team on the court- all of the players, working towards a common goal and only successful if everybody is supported.

For educators who care deeply about the 5 Cs discussed in this book, it’s worth considering that it’s not the way in which competition is conducted or facilitated, but rather the structure of the interaction itself. That the creation of winners and losers actually undermines what we value as educators.

It’s past time to challenge the sacred cow that competition can ever be healthy.

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One thought on “Love Affair: Reflections on a Sacred Cow

  1. You’re right. Such a sacred cow. This was a great late night read, thanks.
    I would love to watch a game of Almost Soccer! Sounds hilariously fun.

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