Competition Against the Learning Child

by Olga Cherrington

Many activities recommended by teacher’s books or resource books for young learners courses start with an instruction to ‘divide the class into teams’. Most games designed to practise English end with celebrating the winner’s luck, superior knowledge and intellect.  Grammar structures and vocabulary are being drilled as children are racing to beat each other, eager, determined, dominant, jealous or desperate. Language learning has become a truly competitive experience. But why do we need so much competition in class? And even if we do, what are the side effects?

I started teaching a class of 7-8 year olds this term to discover within the first 15 minutes that they are only motivated when they’re competing. If they just have to read or write or practise a structure and the teacher doesn’t announce the one who finishes first a winner, they are immediately disinterested. They would suggest hundreds of ways to compete even if they are doing non-competitive tasks. I was shocked when I gave them a concentration game to play in pairs. They were really rushing through it (and failing because they weren’t concentrating, of course) to finish it before other pairs! And those who hadn’t finished first blamed the ‘winners’ of having cheated!

I also have a class of 10-12 year olds who wrote an end-of-term test last week. Knowing they would be more interested in how their classmates did on the test than where and why they had made mistakes, I decided to break from the tradition of announcing test results or congratulating the top girl or boy. I just wrote the pass rate on the board – 70% and said that if they had done better, that was great and we should keep up the hard work, and if they had done worse, that was not the end of the world, we would figure out everything together. I thought those who did worse than they wanted to were quite grateful for the privacy, but those who did quite well were insatiable. They were dying to make sure they were the best ones and pressing the rest of the children quite badly to say what their grades were in the break. Finally, when a boy who missed the test feedback turned up for the next class, as he was coming in, he was attacked with an immediate ‘What did you get for the test?’ from our ‘top boy’.

Obviously, we’ve been quite successful in instilling the spirit of competition in our practice. Why did we want to do that?

  1. The most popular argument would be that competition motivates young learners. They want to win, so they try to know and perform better.
  2. Competition is interesting. The assumption here, I understand, is that the subject itself is not.
  3. Competition is easy classroom management. Just give the kids a rival and they will do everything a teacher says because the teacher decides who the winner is.

But is there anything we are missing out as we turn our classes into a mad race?

  1. Competition is stressful.  You should see my 7-8 year olds panting and stammering as they are trying to answer above a row of their classmates, all waving their hands at me and dying to steal my attention from the child. There is no situation in which everyone in this class is happy. They are fighting for attention, for praise, for a sticker and even when they get one, they know that in a minute they’ll be thrown back into their battle.
  2. Competition is devastating. If they lose, they look down, they sigh, their arms hang helplessly, their shoulders drop, they slouch in their chairs. This becomes a bad day in their lives.
  3. Competition kills empathy. They hate each other. It’s as simple as that. We don’t like people we perceive as rivals.
  4. Competition hinders learning because a stressed person is not a learning person. When we are stressed, our survival mechanisms are activated and trained. But it’s only when we feel safe that we actually explore and learn.
  5. Competition celebrates the result that’s only good in comparison. In case of an English class, it’s probably not flawless or spectacular performance. It’s just better than others. The trouble is winning, especially repetitively, in a competition might discourage the child from moving further. As long as I’m better than seven other children, I don’t really need to do anything.
  6. Competition creates false motivation, along with the reward-and-punishment system. Surely, the motivation for learning English should be the beautiful, funny, logical, irrational language itself that unites people all over the world and the rich multinational culture it represents. Why would children learn it? Because that’s what we do as human beings. We move, we breathe, we learn. Creating an educational environment is just a way to facilitate one of our basic functions – learning. Far too often we as teachers forget about the big picture and don’t let the children see it as we are distracting them from it with yet another contest or prize.

With my group of 7-8 year olds, my challenge this month is to create a more relaxed and friendly learning environment by minimizing competition. How to do it with the children who are already highly competitive?

  • Eliminate competitive activities as well as rewards and punishments from the lessons. This might sound scary if your classroom management is largely based on competition. But in classes I tried it with I soon found that the children started cooperating with each other and making friends in the class as I wasn’t ruining their relationships with unnecessary competition.
  • Give opportunities for focused deliberate practice with self-correction. Give them a taste of what learning really is. Let them enjoy the feeling of growth and taking responsibility.
  • Name their feelings in a non-judgmental way.  They are already competitive. This is how they have been raised and it stresses them out. If they are dying to answer first, to be announced winners, to receive praise, just say ‘You really want to be the first’ or ‘You love to be the winner’ without showing your encouragement or disapproval. If you are accepting and non-judgmental, they will have a chance to reflect on their behavior themselves rather than try and please you.

This ‘mirroring’ technique helps children become more aware of their feelings and motives and relies on their ability to self-correct. I love it and try to make it the basis of our communication in class. This technique is used in a number of therapeutic approaches. The explanation of it I found very helpful is by a child and family therapist, Jennifer Kolari.

  • Mirror their good qualities. Let them discover the good about themselves as you remark on their practice with ‘You’re working hard to do it just right’, ‘You keep trying although it didn’t work the first time’, ‘You love inventing things!’, ‘You’re inquisitive! You love to find out things!’, ‘You like how this word sounds’, ‘You can sing anything in English!’ etc.

This discovery will be more fascinating than always trying to be top of the class.  It can also help the children find a deeper motivation for learning. ‘I want to know it because I’m inquisitive. That’s who I am.’

Author’s Bio: Olga Cherrington has taught English in two IH schools in Ukraine – IH Sevastopol and Kiev. She has always enjoyed working with young and very young learners most of all. She studied the Montessori system and worked for a Montessori school. In teaching English, she tries to marry the communicative approach with Montessori principles.