Reflections on The Case Against Competition

Competition is a recipe for hostility. By definition, not everyone can win a contest. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that each child comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success. Forget fractions or home runs; this is the real lesson our children learn in a competitive environment.
-Alfie Kohn. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/nc288ej on 19 November 2016

As I sit here at Adelaide Airport after an excellent few days at FlipCon Adelaide with Jon Bergmann, Ken Bauer and many other fine educators, I thought it prudent to begin organising my reflections on the evening spent listening to Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) speak. There was a lot to take in that evening, with two sessions, The Case against Competition and The Homework Myth and I was left with a strong sense of cognitive dissonance as a result. As you read this article and the next, I would like you to consider your own philosophy about punishment and rewards.

I had heard of Alfie Kohn during my Initial teacher Education (ITE) during my first-year Sociology of Education and my second-year Classroom management courses. All that I could remember from then was that Alfie promoted a laissez-faire approach to classroom management, however, I could not remember anything that was discussed vis-à-vis his views on competition. Alfie opened by remarking that the best teachers do not talk, they let the students do the talking. He also noted that the best teachers also do not test and find another way of fulfilling their requirement to provide a grade

Rewards are as bad as punishments
Alfie Kohn

This statement was, for me at least, a very unexpected and odd remark. Fortunately, Alfie spoke about some of the research behind the comment. He commented that in studies that have been undertaken about the impacts of rewards, that on average they reveal that providing rewards to participants for completing a task or achieving a goal results in less success than those participants who are asked to complete the same task knowing that there is no reward. This is particularly the case in studies where the goal has been to quit smoking or to lose weight with one set of participants being offered a reward and the other set receiving no additional intervention. Two studies, he continued, show that being praised for characteristics such as generosity, niceness, sharing etc. actually results in the participants becoming less generous, less kind, less willing to share; that the reward tends to undermine the characteristic being praised.

Alfie then asked us to pair up and develop a hypothesis for why being praised for social characteristics has been shown to be counter-productive. When many people moved into groups of three or four, he commented at the end that he did not mind that we had not actually followed his instructions worked in pairs for the task; however, he added that he hopes we are as tolerant of our own students doing the same thing, a remark which elicited a smattering of slightly nervous laughter.

He commented that he is often asked questions along the lines of “but what about acknowledging rather than rewarding?” and that he sees that there are many ways of distinguishing between the two. I do not actually have any notes indicating what he said about that topic and I cannot recall whether that was because he made that comment and then moved on or if it was because I simply did not write anything down. Personally, I do not see that acknowledging a student’s effort or results can be the same as rewarding them for the same. Something as simple as “I can see that you have been practicing x” or “I can tell that you have been working on y” is not, in my view, rewarding them, but merely acknowledging that you can see the effort, particularly if you then move on to providing feedback or whatever it is that you are doing.

Alfie then began to speak about punishments, or as they are often called; consequences. He remarked that the language does not change the fact that if a student feels like it is a punishment then it is a punishment. Forced social isolation sounds terrible, yet it is often referred to as detention or time-out and spoken as being a consequence of some action he said. Alfie continued by noting that to understand rewards, we need to understand punishments and that punishments (and rewards) can work. They can achieve temporary compliance in a specific context, but only at a great cost.

Alfie posits that when we tell a student “Do x or I will do y (or y will happen to you)” we are teaching them self-interest as it encourages students to think about the action as being necessary for the reward or avoidance of punishment. It also, in the case of punishments, enacted when the student is caught doing whatever the act is that is being frowned upon, which means that if they can avoid being caught in the act then they will do the act irrespective of the threat.  This creates distrust and fosters selfishness.

“The best way to ensure that something happens is to ban it.”
-Unknown

This desire to avoid being caught doing something deemed wrong and therefore avoid being punished stifles conversations about the kind of woman or man the child wants to grow up to be. The implication here is that the paradigm of how we teach children about right and wrong and about consequences, punishments and rewards is ineffective and detrimental to achieving what we want. However, this assumption depends on what the goal is. We should be asking students to consider what kind of person do I want to be?

I struggle with this. My (admittedly limited) experience tells me that students struggle to think about abstract things in a concrete way. That considering what their personality will be like when they are adults is a very difficult feat to achieve to with real sincerity. I have tried to talk with students about their goals for the future, some with very specific goals, and encourage them to consider how their learning now will impact their ability to achieve their goal and it is not something they are able to do.

Additionally, I struggle with the concept of removing punishments or consequences, which I get the impression is what Alfie is arguing for when I know that there are students with whom that approach will only exacerbate their behaviour, escalating it to be dangerous. I have friends who have been in classrooms and have had chairs thrown at them, or tables have been flipped and fights have broken out amongst students. I agree with the premise (Aristotle, Rhetoric) that all actions occur for a reason, yet how do you educate a violent child that violence is not the answer when, in their experience, violence gets them what they want? I have heard it said that if your lesson is engaging enough that you will not have class management problems. But with more experience and (a little) less naiveté, how can you deliver a lesson when you cannot engage the students because they are violent and disruptive or disengaged with school, or there is no support for education at home?

punishments-and-rewards-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin-and-that-coin-doesnt-buy-you-much-quote-1
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jsk6jeh on 19 November 2016

Alfie posits that punishments and rewards are as manipulative as each other and are therefore merely two sides of the same coin. Rewards, he said, disrupt the vertical (teacher-student) and the horizontal (peer-peer) relationships and trust. Rewards reinforce power that the parent or teacher holds over the child or student. Alfie remarked that in classrooms where a reward is offered for a certain level of achievement, or grades that a student who needs and wants help is less disposed to ask for help in order to conceal the weakness. This on reflection seems rather counter-intuitive. If a reward is offered for achieving a certain grade and assistance was required to achieve the grade and therefore achieve the reward then why would you not make the request for help? Am I being too simplistic here in my understanding of the scenario? Perhaps this is the kind of context that Alfie spoke about, that if the reward is large enough then the result will be temporary compliance.

do-rewards-motivate-people-absolutely-they-motivate-people-to-get-rewards-quote-1
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jsk6jeh on 19 November 2016

One of the greatest predictors of learning, Alfie informed the audience, is being part of a caring community; with a sense of us rather than a sense of me. This links back to what was said about the way in which punishments create a sense of if I do not get caught and implies that a strong community will actually contribute to a reduction for the need for punishments. He also stated that just as punishments change the thinking to be ego-centric, to avoid punishment, so too do rewards change thinking to be ego-centric, to be given the reward.

An award is simply an artificially rarefied reward. Alfie posits that creating a competitive culture in the classroom tells students that others are an obstacle to their success and that their value or worth is only as good as the extent to which they defeat others. We were also told that competition makes students less communicative. The point that was made here was that why would a student communicate openly or trust others when it potentially creates a situation where their help will be used against them, fostering a culture where people are envious of winners and contemptuous of losers. Perhaps this is remedied by changing the system and removing grades and marks?

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The impact on children of second-hand smoking. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/htnqn5x on 19 November 2016

In this day and age we are all aware and understand the dangers of second-hand smoke. Alfie said that “the impact of competitiveness is as bad as second-hand smoke in the psychological sense as it creates a situation where students cannot feel good about themselves in one context or another without others failing. I have not read enough of the research (read: I have not read any of the research) to have a grasp on the accuracy of this statement. My initial reaction was that it is a gross exaggeration and that that could not possibly be true, however, I have seen advertisements from the days when smoking was considered a good thing and I remember the arguments and the gradual social shift that took us from a society where smoking was acceptable to it being seen as a disgusting and smelly habit, with smokers shunned in many ways.

Alfie began to wrap up the session at this point. He reminded us that rewards and punishments focus on the end-result, not the underlying reason for the end-result and all behaviour happens for a reason.

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Rewards undermined the interest of students in whatever it is that is being rewarded, the audience was told. I have not seen this for myself, however, I have seen how schooling can destroy a student’s interest in something through the edufication of a student interest .  My school is putting on a musical this year to celebrate the school’s sixtieth anniversary, calling it Dancing through the decades. Each Stage has been assigned two (non-consecutive) decades and will be performing a ten-minute block for each decade. Stage Three has been assigned the seventies and the current decade (are we really calling it the teens?) One of the songs chosen was quite popular when we first began but is now very much less so because they are sick of hearing the music and practicing singing.

The model is wrong, to the point where students are sometimes rewarded for a reward. Being rewarded for a reward, whether it be a car for good exam results in the case of those at the end of their schooling or something much smaller such as a toy, lollies or fast food for a perfect spelling test is wrong. We did not get explicit reasons for this, however, I feel that it is an amplification of the overall problem with rewards, that it undermines whatever is being strived for by limiting growth and putting a cap on excellence.

The topic of motivation arose, and Alfie reminded us of the typical understanding that there are two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic,  and that, he alleges, research shows that the kind of motivation has a much more significant impact on the outcome than the amount of motivation. He went on to say that research indicates that as levels of extrinsic motivation increase, levels of intrinsic motivation shows a proportional decrease.

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Rewarding someone for doing something actively damages a person’s interest in that thing. Alfie spoke about research that was done to study this using soft-drink. A new flavour was tested and those who drank it knowing that they would be rewarded showed more negative feelings about the product a few weeks later. In contrast to this, those who drank the product knowing they would not be receiving a reward demonstrated the same or slightly better feelings about the product afterwards.

Alfie posed a hypothetical: what is the alternative to rewards? Ultimately, it varies according to what the end goal is and no one alternative is a panacea to solve the issue. He indicated that it is his view that programs such as Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) do not achieve anything more than produce mindless obedience and that they do not result in more proficient learners. Giving students more say in the way that classrooms are run is one way of impacting attitudes and behaviours and I have heard of a system where a class runs their own court system (as outlined here) which apparently works quite well.

Alfie’s talk raised lots of questions and I feel like I still do not have answers for them. I did not have an opportunity to speak to him after the session as he, like all of us, needed a break to eat some dinner before the second session began. Reflecting on the ideas and what he spoke about, though, I can agree with much of what he spoke about. Where I begin to struggle is with implementing the changes that would be necessary to change my own practice.

What does this look like in a classroom? What does it look like in a school? Even if you negotiate the rules within a class and punishments for breaking them with the class and everyone is on board, is that generating the same results as rules arbitrarily set down and enforced by the teacher? Consequences are a part of life; touch a hot stove and you get burned, commit a crime and you face the consequences set down in law. If that is wrong, then the fundamental fabric of how our society functions is wrong and needs to be re-examined, which I do not see ever happening due to a large range of factors, not the least of which is tradition and a need for control (which in and of itself speaks to a lot of what Alfie was saying). If you do manage to create a model without punishments, how do you correct the behaviour which is socially unacceptable; swearing, derogatory language, violence, and disrespect of self and others; in students who see those things modelled as acceptable at home? How does this model fit with research from The Dunedin Project? This world-renowned longitudinal study has found that there is actually a genomic predisposition towards violence and extreme violence in some people, amongst other traits often regarded as socially unacceptable (Caspi, A. , McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E. , Mill, J.S., Martin, J. , Craig, I., Taylor, A., Poulton, R. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 2002, 297 (297), 851-854). . What impact does that have on this issue?

I often hear that secondary education cops it because things that happen or do not happen in primary school. I also often hear parents ask why I am trying a particular approach or idea when their child is off to high school and it will straight back to traditional classrooms, masses of homework etc. How does this concept fit within that constraint, the transition from primary to high school? There is a lot to consider here and I would very much appreciate hearing your comments on the topic, as well as any feedback on the article or your own interpretations of Alfie’s work in this area.

As always, thank you for reading.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on The Case Against Competition

  1. We live in a dark age where knowledge of anything is rare. Accordingly being very certain of the effects of anything on children – competition or smoking only comes with great difficulty. The way teachers these days are cavalierly heaping on tests and homework does not match the uncertainty required for living in a time of so many unknowns. Like smoking, even before the studies proved harmful, all of our daily experiences indicate our children are at stress levels which must be unhealthy and studies will eventually back that up http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01028/full. Also like smoking there are professionals involved who are paid to ignore the increasingly obvious results of unregulated competition.

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