Most school-age kids have to compete to earn spots on athletic teams, and sometimes they're also pitted against one another in the classroom.
But experts disagree on whether competition is an asset or a roadblock to the learning process.
At Bruce Guadalupe Elementary School on Milwaukee’s south side, teachers have found a way to get kids interested in math: turn it into a game. A board game, to be precise. Developed by the NBA, it’s called “Math Hoops,” and it’s based on basketball. Players try to earn the most “points” by scoring baskets – which they can only do, by making correct calculations involving numbers they roll, on a pair of dice.
Math is not ten-year-old Cecilia Tatum’s forte -- but she says Math Hoops has improved her skills.
“I’m not really good at division that much, it’s really hard for me. But since I’ve been playing this game, I’ve been getting better at quizzes for my tests in math class,” she explains.
“It doesn’t have to do with how many times they win or lose, it’s just how many times they play the game,” says Cecilia’s teacher, Sean Patterson.
Patterson runs Math Hoops as an afterschool program during the school year. He says while the activity is successful, he struggles to figure out where similar head-to-head competition is appropriate in the school day.
“We want to try to keep the proverbial playing field even, especially in math,” he explains. “Competition in the classroom -- that can turn ugly with some students. But this is the place to compete, in a safer environment where we know it’s just a game, and it doesn’t impact report card grades and their feelings for the rest of school.”
Education experts are divided over whether pitting students against each other in games or other contests is conducive to classroom learning. They note that younger children might have a tougher time coping with losing a challenge.
“When you put a competitive element in something, you create energy immediately,” says John Shindler, a researcher and professor of education at Cal State-Los Angeles. “It’s not just giving information, it’s not just structuring an activity. It’s structuring the psychological orientation toward the activity.”
Shindler says the effectiveness of competition depends on how teachers introduce it into the curriculum. The biggest tactic he recommends: focusing on the fun of the learning process.
“If the value is, ‘I can do this now, I’ve been practicing’ – of course competitively you’re better now. But you also tried to get better at something, and you saw the results. And that’s a very clean psychological relationship,” he says.
Competition doesn’t just have to result in a winner and a loser. It can also mean trying to improve one’s own performance.
One place kids can do just that – the Milwaukee Public Library. MPL’s flagship summer program, “Super Readers,” encourages kids to log their reading time for prizes.
Kelly Wochinski, the library’s youth services coordinator, says the activity provides an incentive for kids to keep up crucial reading skills – plus a few more.
“[It’s] for really developing the self-esteem that kids need to keep exploring avenues of interest for them, and helping develop some of that grit,” she explains. “Winning, losing -- all of that is important for developing functional adults.”