Paradigm #3 – Conditioned to Compete

As we survey our cultural landscape it is hard not see our world without the lens of competition. It dominates the airwaves as political parties clash for votes, sports teams become the pillars of entertainment, and it even seeps into the very fabric of our educational system and our classrooms. Our society has conditioned countless generations on the psychology of competition. This paradigm of scarcity, benefits no one and self-imposes limits on a pie that does not need to shrink.

Competition is not bad in all contexts and is certainly not bad when held in healthy perspective. What has become fearfully apparent is the utter failure of a forced, contrived competitive mindset into our educational system. Accountability, as word in education, over the past two decades has become synonymous with competition. Competition is peddled as a cure-all to the ills facing our education system. Competing for school funds, competing for students into our school district, offering school choice, etc… I’m all for accountability, I use it in my mentorships as way to ensure mutual growth…not growth at the expense of others. The false narrative around the oxymoron ‘competitive accountability’ continues through the remaking of teacher and administrative evaluations today tied to student success on standardized assessments. Creating a system based on ‘extrinsic competitive’ motivators is easy to do and the results are plain; winners and losers.

Yet, is our education system designed to produce winners and losers? I hope we can agree that is not the case… Learning and education are both relational enterprises, a relationship built on the foundation of mutual cooperation for mutual growth. Competition’s place in this equation should be in a private form, where we push ourselves, personally, to grow in our capacity as a learner, not try to prevent the growth of another.

Creating a system that expands the pie of opportunity for all students, all parents, all teachers, all administrators, all policy makers, all businesses, all stakeholders in the future of our country must be our goal, we should hold ourselves accountable to nothing less. This is a tall, utopian task we may never see fulfilled, but it starts with us. It starts with a shift in our paradigm, from one of scarcity to one of possibility fulfilled through mutual cooperation that generates societal synergy.

Over this past year I was deeply convicted about this paradigm as I think about the agricultural education program I’m involved in guiding. We recently, passed a significant bond that will create huge enhancements for our specific program and we have been planning for these improvements and new building for the past two years. After I visited with elementary school stakeholders during several public bond meetings over the course of the semester I quickly came to realize how narrow-minded and honestly competitively-minded our bond vision had been for the fulfillment of our specific agricultural education program vision and needs.

These conversations during the public bond meetings, caused a deep shift in my paradigm. We could definitely construct a new agricultural education facility, but how can we ensure that we maintain a level of retention of our young families in the community and continue to attract new families who will keep that facility filled with eager learners? It was then I decided to become active in our local PTO as a future father and offer my sweat and service to fulfill desperately needed improvements for the elementary school that was not offered through the bond. My biggest takeaway from this experience, the pie only gets larger when we cooperate. When we see others less as competitive rivals for the same piece of the pie and begin discussing ways to make the most of the pie we have, its amazing at how quickly we can acquire the ingredients together to make a new, larger pie.

Reflect for a moment to our classrooms and schools. Where do we need to change our mindset from one of ‘competitiveness’ to one of ‘cooperativeness’? How can we infuse that shift into our own daily life?

Teacher Challenge: It is easy to create a “competitive” review game. Change it up and try to design a cooperative challenge that forces students to work together and not against. 

Learner Challenge: Understanding the psychology of competition is important. Dive into the link below for a quick primer on the topic:

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