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Apples and Oranges: An Intergenerational Dialogue about Competition and Learning

Apples and Oranges:
An Intergenerational Dialogue about Competition and Learning
By Colleen Bagg and Jeanne Yardley

What follows is a conversation between a recent homeschooling “graduate” (CB) and the mother of two former homeschoolers (JY).

JY: We know from the start that you and I both have strong opinions on the value of competition. I’m particularly concerned about the effects of competition on how people learn. Even very young children run into competitive situations in school.

CB: Me, for example. My background was one of a semi-normal six-year-old who couldn't wait to attend kindergarten. Before we were allowed to start activities for the day, we sat in a circle, and the quietest and best behaved were permitted to choose their activities first. It was a competition I invariably lost.

I was a very active child, and sitting still was almost beyond me. So I would be forced to wait, and wait, and wait, as my competitors each got up and went to play the games I was aching to play.

JY: Ouch! Obviously, the teacher hoped to encourage self-control by rewarding the kids who behaved in the desired way. Yet you didn’t learn from that competitive atmosphere how to sit still and be quiet. Tragically, what you did learn was that you were actually unable to perform as expected.

I would say that, for you (and me and many other people), one thing that doesn’t work about school is the expectation that students have to be motivated from outside, or else they won’t learn anything. Getting them to compete with each other is one way to motivate them.

CB: Yes. For me, that atmosphere and/or style of teaching hardly taught me anything.

JY: Yet, this approach obviously does work for some people. I was absolutely astounded when my sensitive, creative daughter (having decided to go back to school after seven years at home) plunged herself into the competition for grades and awards. I know she is selective about what subjects she pushes herself in, and she is following her interests in that sense. But the fierceness of her drive to be the winner still amazes me.

So the first conclusion we can draw is that different kids react in different ways to competitive learning contexts.

CB: More than that – the same kid can react different ways at different times.

Take chess. I am a slightly below-average chess player. Chess is a very competitive and aggressive game, in its rules and movements. Up until a few years ago, on the rare occasions when I would play chess, I would lose and break down into tears. The competition absolutely broke my enjoyment of the game.

Then last Christmas, during a family gathering, I played ping-pong for the first time. I was matched against an opponent who had some experience, and I lost half the matches I played. The difference? I had an absolute ball playing! It never even entered my mind that this was a competition. It was just a good time with my family. I relaxed, forgot about points or winning, and enjoyed myself immensely.

One thing that doesn’t work about school is the expectation that students have to be motivated from outside, or else they won’t learn anything. Getting them to compete with each other is one way to motivate them.

JY: Two different games; two completely different responses to competing.

I’m curious: Do you think you have learned more about chess or about ping-pong? How did the two different mindsets affect what you ended up learning?

CB: You probably want me to say that I learned more about ping-pong, but I did learn more about chess, simply because I played it multiple times whereas I played ping-pong once. But, the more important thing (in my view of homeschooling anyway) is that I learned more about myself playing ping-pong than chess. I learned that I could have way more fun in life if I just let go.

The mindset of frustration is never very conducive to learning for anyone, but it is especially inhibiting for me. With chess, I'm told, it’s a matter of strategy, and those strategies must be learnt over time. I never learned those strategies.

The mindset of having fun is often useful for learning, if you have the presence of mind to focus enough to learn. I did learn and internalize some of the rules and tips my ping-pong teachers were teaching me. But some of it, I admit, went in one ear and out the other.

JY: Maybe for some people, the frustration of facing a more experienced opponent in a challenging competition is a stimulus to learn as much as they can.

But too often, I think, kids are thrown into that kind of situation and come out without any real learning. Competition isn’t necessarily either productive or enjoyable in an unequal situation.

CB: But there are benefits to competition sometimes, as I think we can see in video games.

In different types of video games, there are lists of scores made up of either the members of the house who have "competed" in that game or the members of the online community who have competed. (And often the latter are the hardest to beat because these players have a vast experience with the game.)

On the Wii Fit (the only game I can say I have a score on), when I see others’ scores, it encourages me to do better.

But it also reminds me that I have different strengths. When my score is lower than someone else's, it might mean they have stronger abs than me, or if my score is a little higher, it means I have stronger legs.

JY: So in this case, competition motivates you to try harder, and trying harder can get you somewhere, help you improve your game and your level of fitness.

An important thing to note is that, unlike school, this is a competition that you take part in by choice. When you go into it willingly, the competitive aspect actually helps you to do better.

CB: I personally believe that most people will work hard at something they enjoy. Others thrive on competition (and that may be because they enjoy competition itself.)

JY: The gamers in my house tell me that competing in this way used to bother them – until they grew out of it. It sounds as though knowing that other people had done well in a challenging game originally caused them anxiety and took pleasure out of the experience. Having learned to focus just on their own performance, they now feel they enjoy what they are playing more than when they felt the heat of competition. And it seems that they also feel freer to learn and challenge themselves if they ignore the competitive aspect.

But then there’s this point that I learned during the Olympics: speed skaters compete in pairs in the timed races, rather than just alone against the clock, because having someone else racing beside them at the same time actually inspires them both to try harder.

CB: The Olympics do give an interesting slant to this topic, and perhaps it would help to use a different term: betterment? If a person is saying to themselves, for example, "Today I am 183 lbs. and tomorrow I want to be a better weight than that," isn't that, in a sense, competing? Except, no. We call it, I don't know, improvement? So how about instead of everyone rushing to see how well they did in comparison to others, we all rejoice when we achieve goals that are better than we were before? Losing weight, making a better time, "against" ourselves? Perhaps that may be the positive? When we are driven to better ourselves.

The hard part, as I see it, is to narrow our view to exclude competition with others. It is, I believe, in our genes.

JY: Your Wii game also reminds us that competition points out differences: abs versus legs; little Colleen fidgeting in her seat versus the other kids whose bodies can sit still and quiet.

CB: I agree. (And little Colleen is still around, thank you very much, and wishes she could have heard that in kindergarten.)

Having differences pointed out can be a good thing. Case in point: strength tests. They help an individual discern which direction they should go in their life and career.

If an apple enters an orange competition, it will lose. If a student who is extremely adept at math (but weak in English) is asked to compete in a short story contest, they will most likely fail. If for no other reason than, instead of focusing on their English, they were engrossed in their calculus notes.

That's another thing about competition: If an apple enters an orange competition, it will lose. If a student who is extremely adept at math (but weak in English) is asked to compete in a short story contest, they will most likely fail. If for no other reason than, instead of focusing on their English, they were engrossed in their calculus notes.

Also, with the straight-up competition, sometimes that can accomplish differentiation and help you to view strengths in a clearer light. If our dear aforementioned apple, entering the orange competition, is told by the judges that it fails in the orangey department, but passed with flying colors in the juice department, it might go on to a wonderful career as a glass of breakfast-time gold.

JY: In this sense, competition helps people to find out who they are, what they’re good at and where they might take those strengths.

I recently heard a comment on the radio that the Olympics foster leadership skills, that “the competitors of today are the leaders of tomorrow.” According to this theory, kids who are exposed to competition gain strength from the experience and later go on help to make the world a better place.

Yet I look around at the people that we perceive to be our leaders, and I don’t think any of them were previous Olympic competitors. When I Google in an effort to figure out what past Olympic champions might be doing today, I come up with some politicians, some charitable workers, some actors, some continuing athletes – and some cannabis smokers. There doesn’t seem to be a clear cause and effect happening.

But I really do wonder about the general idea that competing teaches leadership in a way that benefits society. What do you think?

CB: Perhaps some think Olympians are our future leaders because we all want our leaders to be the best. And being an Olympian is the pinnacle of sport. Some of our greatest leaders have succeeded (at least in part) because of a trait I believe is shared by Olympians: determination. But if that is the only thing people have that might make them leaders, I think they would be better off on the slopes, the track or the rink.

Olympians are great, and some of them may indeed make good leaders. But to assume that, because you compete and win on a world stage of sport, you naturally make a good leader is like saying because Einstein is brilliant at math, he is naturally a good cook. It makes me think of our poor little apple being asked to lead the orange committee.

JY: Once again, we are saying that the usefulness of competition varies with the context.

CB: You have to choose your competition.

I have very good hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. If someone read that who didn't know me, they might assume that I am very good at drawing. I'm not. I take pleasure in it, don't get me wrong, but I don't have the skills to create life-like art. My forte is wearable art. Jewelry, costumes, masks, etc. If I were to enter a pair of my earrings into a competition for self-portraits, I'd lose. Not because my work wasn't good, but because it wasn't what the rest of the competitors were making.

And then there’s competition among siblings – where’s the good in that?

JY: Ah, the sibling rivalry question… I remember that my sister and I used to be competitive in those nasty little-girl ways, mostly about territory and property.

But later as our interests and aptitudes began to emerge, we made a sort of tacit agreement to avoid competing with each other. So during our adolescent years and early adult lives, I became the family writer; she became the visual artist. We somehow (willingly, generously, as I remember it, but maybe you should ask her!) gave the other the spotlight in that one area. To this day, I seek out her expertise on art, and she comes to me for advice on things she is writing.

I think this understanding freed us both to excel, without the damage to our relationship that might have resulted from trying to outdo each other. And more than that – we’ve also both had the pleasure of mentoring and of being mentored.

CB: That sounds wonderful. Because my sister and I are almost five years apart, competition is almost nonexistent.

JY: My kids have always seemed a little competitive, in an indirect sort of way. My oldest certainly saw the new baby as an instant competitor from the moment she appeared.

CB: I remember being very excited about the arrival of a new plaything. Uh, playmate that is... Actually, my opinion is that I don't remember competing for Mom's attention because I got more than my fair share. It’s a very good example of the squeaky wheel getting the oil. The rambunctious, loud, and demanding child got the attention. Mom feels that only now, when we are 14 and 19, is she giving my sister the attention she missed for so many years.

JY: Competition can have a destructive impact on relationships, especially in a family.

Competition can have a destructive impact on relationships, especially in a family.

It seems unfair, and yet we can’t discount what we have inherited through evolution. As you said earlier – it’s in our genes! In packs of animals, there is a constant competition over the alpha position, and you often see stronger animals pestering or even harming the weaker members of their pack. Maybe that’s what siblings are doing. Even though, as females, you and I may feel above such things, we have to acknowledge that men especially are hardwired (in biological terms) to compete in order to protect the family and the species.

And that makes sense in a situation of scarcity. In fact, my dictionary includes this concept in its definition of the word “competition,” stating that the competitors “share a limited environmental resource.”

Obviously, competition is much less likely to be an issue in an experience of abundance. If you believe that Mom loves all her children with all her heart, you won’t have to feel rejected when she nurses the baby. If you believe that there are ample fun toys to play with, you won’t have to feel distraught when the teacher lets the other kids have their pick first.

But our culture defines our existence in terms of what we don’t have and how little chance we have to get it.

CB: Because we are a "here and now" and superficial society. We are judged, not on what we are, but what we have. Not what we are working for, but what we achieve. There's a huge celebration for graduations and weddings, not so much for engagements or just slogging your way through university. If you want to be liked, be rich, be successful, have lots of expensive stuff.

In an atmosphere of abundance, yes, I believe there is less competition.

Which brings us to the workplace: there are so few jobs out there, competition can be fierce. And once you’ve got the job, there is huge competition in the workplace. Everyone wants to be viewed in the best light by their manager, supervisor, boss, so they can be paid the most, so they can (for teens) go to more movies and (for adults) maybe be able to take a cruise in another year.

Some people strive to do the best they can just to be better human beings, but let’s be realistic and talk about the majority.

I work at a pizza place. In the store, in order to get every pizza to the person who ordered it on time, everyone must work as a team. But, because of competition, most don't. They feel they need to protect themselves and their jobs – and if they stop to help someone else, that person will look better. This may be speculation, but it is what I'm feeling from my coworkers.

The reality, that many don't realize, is that the manager, supervisor, boss, sees this competition, and – more often than not – it reflects poorly on the worker. It’s only when we put aside our competitive natures that things work smoothly.

JY: The need to compete for jobs is a preoccupation for many people. In fact, a young mother recently commented to me that kids are surrounded by competition and will have to compete all their lives for jobs etc. It was her way of rationalizing parents putting their children into competitive sports, such as gymnastics, at very young ages (as opposed to letting the kids take the lead and select activities based on interest or enjoyment).

The theory is, I guess, that people should start practicing the art of competition at an early age, so that by the time you are trying to beat out your best friend for a job or your fellow sales associate for the most sales or whatever, you will be well accustomed to the cut-throat, take-no-prisoners warfare of daily life. And maybe that’s what lies behind the rants of the stereotypical hockey-parent?

In spite of my bias, I have to acknowledge that these parents sincerely believe they are doing the best for their children.

CB: I know where this young mother is coming from. I've heard the same rationale for sending kids to school. My normally-schooled friends have been exposed to the harsh realities of school and thus are prepared for the nasty world that is waiting for them, out there... I, say some, am not.

Competition does exist in the workplace and people should be prepared for it, yes. However, my philosophy is that, if you're good at your job, you won't have to compete. You don't have to jump highest to be noticed. Bosses and managers have a way of knowing who is doing their job best.

JY: But, like you mentioned a while back, there’s the team-work part of being successful, too.

I see this contrast very clearly in the potters’ guilds I belong to. When we have a pottery sale, everyone must work together and cooperate to make the sale a success, because we run the sale like a large store, operated completely by us as volunteers. Yet, at the same time, every potter is competing against every other potter, because only so many customers come in and they spend only so much money on so many pots.

So we are trying to help each other do the best we can as a group, but we’re also trying to make sure that our own pots sell the best.  Some potters handle this conflict more diplomatically than others, with understandably mixed results.

CB: That reminds me of my experience of acting in a play, in some ways. Each actor, of course, wants to be seen the most, but the minute they take more than their share of the spotlight, the other actors resent them and the play starts to deteriorate. Cooperation is essential to over-all success.

JY: You suggest that to coexist well in the workplace (maybe in the world as a whole?), we need to set aside our competitive natures.

I would say that it is a mark of maturity to be able to do that, to know when to switch out of competitive and into cooperative mode.  Are we saying, then, that the competitive urge is something that people should grow out of?

CB: "Should" can be a dangerous word. I'd say everyone benefits from an over-all atmosphere of cooperation. But some people never "grow out" of this competitiveness. (Wow, that is actually a word!) And others find it too much of an effort to cooperate because it often means going above and beyond the ordinary, or stipulated, call of duty. They find it easier to just do their thing, oblivious of what others need or are doing.

JY: Well, it seems that another sign of maturity is to accept the fact that competition is not a force to be understood in simplistic terms. Here’s what we’ve been saying over the course of this conversation:

In one form or another, competition is here to stay. It’s part of our genetic makeup, and it’s also part of our social reality.

Yet there is a time and place for being competitive. In the right context, it’s a drive that can help people discover, develop, and improve the best in themselves. However, in coercive situations, competition often focuses on performance instead of real learning – and, for some people, leads to a sense of complete failure.

And so we come back to our unschooling roots: what’s essential is having an individual choice whether or not to compete.

Colleen Bagg lives in Brantford, Ontario where her many hobbies and job are always competing for her time. Jeanne Yardley lives with her family near Cambridge, Ontario. She has contributed to Life Learning Magazine several times previously, including the article “Did Einstein’s Mommy Worry?” which is included in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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