Competition: helping or hindering learning?

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Hanelie and Danél Adendorff reflect on the competitive nature of learning and suggest that students shy away from collaboration because they are unsure of how to interact in groups when learning.

Have you ever played the old gold miner game? In this classic, you collect gold, stones, and minerals to reach your goal and progress to the next level. Occasionally, when I look at universities internationally, I fear that this game is quite an apt metaphor for the higher education space.In a TEDxYouth talk entitled “What drives us to be competitive?” Claire Lauterbach asks whether competition “make[s] you better or bitter?” In it, she recounts an experience in her 8th grade year where she had to choose between helping her twin sister improve her English paper, and run the risk of it being better than her own, or withholding the advice in the hopes of beating her sister. In the rest of her talk, she elaborates on her prolonged battle with this need to win. As I listen to her, I wonder if anyone else can see what is happening here, how our focus on achievement is potentially sacrificing learning at the stake of performance.

In another TED talk, Hamid Tizhoosh argues that competition destroys education and that the mentality of ranking and competition in higher education is a fertile breeding ground for stress, anxiety and worse. Sadly, large parts of the higher education game runs on competitive principles. Just ask grade 11 learners all over South Africa. From the first day of their penultimate school year, they are prepped, prodded and pushed to be ready for the all-important grade 11 and 12 examinations. Repeated reminders ensure that they remain acutely aware of how their performance in these events will set the course for the rest of their lives. Like it or not, students compete to get into university, get places in hostels and get bursaries, and then compete again to get into postgraduate programmes.

No wonder our students sometimes approach higher education like a game in which they just need to collect enough points to level up, and eventually out. In the 11th grade Mathematics class of my daughter, students get frustrated when some learners repeatedly ask the “same” question, because that means less time to engage with the harder questions that they will need to master to excel in the final exams. Increasingly, parents seek return on investment, and demand explanations and question assessment practices when the money they have poured into their child’s education does not deliver the expected results.

Sadly, it is only after the completion of the school year and examinations that my daughter will allow herself the privilege of enjoying Mathematics (or Art or Science) for the sole purpose of just indulging in the beauty of it.

Somewhere, in this return-on-investment, marks-driven performance game, I fear we have lost learning. Is not the ultimate return on investment that a learner learns something – like a love for Mathematics, or how to reason through a problem, or make sense of an abstraction or how to appreciate a work of art?

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

In a seminal review of literature on cooperative learning, Johnson, Johnson and Smith (2007) points to various social, psychological and academic benefits of cooperative learning, suggesting cooperative learning as an antidote to the social Darwinistic idea that students must be taught to survive in a “dog-eat-dog” world.

Lecturers, however, repeatedly remind us that students do not enjoy group work. So, each year when I meet new science and agri-science students during group work sessions, I ask them how they feel about group work. Each year they tell me the same: it is not the group work they hate; it is being in a dysfunctional team. This is supported by Johnson, Johnson and Smith’s (2007) assertion that the question is no longer what is best, but how best to implement effective cooperative learning:

“In the 1960s, the major controversy was whether competitive efforts would produce higher achievement than cooperation. In the 1970s, the major controversy was whether individualistic learning would produce higher achievement than would cooperation. Both of those controversies have been resolved by the research. One controversy today is the gap between effective implementation of cooperative learning and causal implementation.”

We might be tempted to assume that students have been adequately prepared for group work or cooperation through the CAPS system. But, during the 4th Psychology of Abstract Mathematics discussion, students told us that this is not so, that they need guidance on how to get group work right.

Preparing students to work together effectively, to deal with interpersonal and group formation issues, is not easy and not well documented in literature either. Following the advice of Johnson, Johnson and Smith (2007), the science and agri-science faculties offer group work preparation to the students in the University Practice (Extended Degree Programme), Science in Context (1st year B.Sc) and New Product Development (4th year, food science) modules. What we have learned from this, is that we need to learn much more. And we need to do make this learning a priority.

The solution of wicked global crises, such as poverty and climate change, will demand new generations of scientists to work collaborative across specialities, experts tell us. My daughter’s 11th grade friends agree. Might it be time that we rethink our practices or at least our beliefs about learning?

Dr. Hanelie Adendorff & Danél Adendorff

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (2007). The state of cooperative learning in postsecondary and professional settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19(1), 15-29.

Leave a Reply