Is it time for competition to take a backseat in STEM education?
If you’re a mentor or instructor working to promote STEM education, chances are that you’ve experimented with a little friendly competition in your teaching and learning dojo.
Playing competitive games with students is a seemingly great way to prime the pump for participation and generate some enthusiasm around academic performance.
And, beyond individual classroom pedagogy, competition and STEM just seem to go hand in hand — from science fairs that boast prizes for top winners, to corporate funding opportunities that reward ‘winning’ schools with resources.
But is fostering competition among STEM students actually that beneficial? Proponents of competition tend to cite the ways in which competition can provide students with a taste of the ‘real world’, in which they’ll have to be assertive and stand out from the pack in order to get ahead.
But is that truly the future we want to be preparing our young people for? Perhaps the best approach to educating students in the STEM fields is not to encourage them to build robots in order to determine which one is best but, rather, create opportunities for authentic collaboration and true group problem-solving.
The pros and cons of competition
Anyone who has turned a teachable moment into a competitive game knows that doing so can help channel student energy in a more positive direction, and elicit whole group participation far quicker than a typical lecture can.
Competition can also encourage students to challenge themselves and work harder than they might normally in order to achieve a goal, and it can also encourage some students to work together towards a shared goal — even if that goal is beating the other team.
But competition can also bring out unsavoury behaviour in both children and adults. When children take competition too seriously in the classroom, it can become the opposite of a ‘fun’ way to diversify the lesson; rather, it can create anxiety, irritability and feelings of overwhelm or frustration.
Teachers can unwittingly contribute to this dilemma, especially when the competition has high stakes. What makes an otherwise ‘friendly’ competition have high stakes? When the winners earn a higher grade than the losers, or some other prize of significant value.
One way around this problem is to follow blogger and teacher David Weller’s golden rule: use cooperation to learn, and competition to review.
This keeps competition as a fun, low-stakes way to review material, but it doesn’t put the stress of winning or losing on children who are already tasked with learning a new skill or content area.
The benefits of collaboration in action
If we look beyond the common lens of education in Ireland to our global colleagues, we can see the impact of collaborative teaching and engagement methods at large. Finland, which, despite some recent slips, remains consistently at the top of nearly every category of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), has been studied by education reformers across the globe.
How does it do it? A 2012 article suggests that the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children.
It has not endorsed student testing and school ranking as the path to improvement but, rather, it focuses on well-rounded curricula and equitable funding of schools throughout the country.
While equitable school funding doesn’t speak to individual teacher practices, it does reveal that Finland values access to education for all, over access to a select and excellent few.
When larger educational systems reward demonstrated excellence over funding equitable opportunities to access hands-on, dynamic STEM lessons and activities, then the system simply produces fewer students overall who are prepared to meet the rigours of the 21st-century workplace.
And Singapore, which has consistently topped the charts in PISA rankings in maths, reading and science, also ranks first in another area that PISA recently began measuring: collaborative problem-solving.
It’s no surprise, given that the tone of its engagement in STEM activities and events nationwide has been one of collaboration and shared learning, as opposed to a focus on winner-takes-all competition that, too quickly, can eclipse the goal of improving student outcomes for all.
Collaboration helps STEM students of all ages
Creating opportunities for collaboration in the classroom must be done thoughtfully, so as to avoid the perils of group work. Collaboration is not just about having students work together in groups, but about truly embracing a classroom culture in which all students are valued.
When students feel that their observations and thoughts are valued, they can begin to develop their opinions by listening to, and learning from, others.
Purposeful collaboration in the classroom is not just a great way to prepare students for the ‘real world’; it’s also a solid strategy for helping students learn to respect their peers and listen to different opinions instead of only wanting to articulate their own.
At the university level, students not only have a qualitatively ‘better’ experience when they work collaboratively, but the research suggests that positive collaboration with peers and professors alike can actually improve student retention and increase the overall efficacy of STEM programmes.
In a 2015 chapter for an academic collection on best practices in STEM education, writers Grant E Gardner and Kristi L Walters note that not only do students in collaborative classroom environments form stronger social bonds that can lead to degree completion and meaningful professional networks, but there is also much empirical support for these claims.
For example, in a meta-analysis of cooperative versus competitive student interactions on problem-solving tasks, the cooperative group consistently outperformed individuals on all forms of problem-solving.
Competition in the STEM classroom can be healthy and offer a number of benefits but, when competition is forced or contrived for the purpose of making a classroom activity ‘fun’ instead of rich and meaningful, then it can generate some major drawbacks, including increased anxiety and lower academic performance.
Embracing collaboration over competition is more than just ‘doing group work’; it’s about helping students identify as respectful thinkers who aren’t competing for knowledge but, rather, discovering it together.
This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on January 2nd, 2018.