The Competitive Side of Schooling

OlympRaceStart-01 Having recent stepped back from teaching, I’m starting to see the forest for the trees and been thinking a lot about the “competitive” nature of our classrooms, our schools and our western educational systems.

First off, I’m not a warm and fuzzy “humanist”, asserting that we shouldn’t measure or mark students. Not at all. Competition is healthy if done without long lasting “selfish” and negative consequences, if done for the benefit of learning. That said, I do find some very disturbing things about how we line up and race students down the learning path. This has been my experience and here are a few of my observations.

1. The race is to the quick?

How come we make learning into a sprint? Why not a marathon? Why not off track or even against yourself? What I mean is, we chunk up learning into discrete units of time and space, usually a few weeks or months. Students memorize and “learn” in a short period of time. We then say they have “learned”. We then say who has won, who gets the ribbons and who is “dumb”. But what have they won? And what about the students who learn over time, the hedgehogs and late bloomers? Why should we look at learning only through a short time frame and in terms of learning having an expiration date?

2. Teaching to the top.

The competitive nature of our education system, our labeling and grading, our ranking and judging of students – creates a hierarchy. And one of the most severe consequences of this, is so many teachers without clothes. Meaning, teachers teaching to the high end, to the audience that is listening/responding. They really and truly have no clothes though – unaware that so many others are left along the road, not really learning and yet still afraid to tell the teacher they have no clothes (for they aren’t teaching those that truly need it, the others at the top will learn nevertheless and sometimes inspite of the teacher). Why do we continue to teach to the top and create schools where only the “top” fit in?

assessment cartoon3. Values out the door – dog eat dog.

When we mark a student and compare students, aren’t we making education into one giant scramble up the intellectual garbage heap? Is that the end game and role of education – to create individuals who are constantly comparing themselves, ranking themselves against others? Supremism / Superiorism / Elitism / Cliquism seems to be the end result, along with a lot of individuals laid to waste along this road. Why must there be failures for others to succeed? Who ever said it should be so?

4. Intellectual Grandiosis

This is the disease that our competitive education system holds up as a sign of health. Why must the end goal of all education, from kindergarten to university, be the creation of a being that counts only from the neck up? So asked Ken Robinson. I totally agree. Why should the race just be along the path of facts and books and rationalism? Why don’t we value our quirky ones, or our athletes, or our very empathetic and kind students? Is not empathy something we learn and should value? Why do we worship the rotting library of academia?

5. Knowing More Does Not Mean Understanding More.

Our students “know” and the competitive system assures so. However, that doesn’t equate to understanding nor even the enacting and proper use of this knowledge. There are many students who do intuitively understand and who we don’t value because they can’t explain it. Why should we equate “winning” with being able to explain? We undervalue and undermine the great force of intuition and wisdom in our competitive market place.

5. Institutionalized Powerlessness

We value human beings by how many years of competitive schooling they’ve had. X number of years and you have it made, you are of the “powerful”. You’ve climbed to the top and are given “value” for such. But what about those who’ve learned by themselves, who gained knowledge while on the toilet or from the tube or their Toshiba laptop? Who is the great decider that tells who should go left and others go right? Isn’t our educational system to blame? How we consign people to failure not based on merit but solely because they didn’t run the educational race?

Just a few thoughts about how competitive education has become. We make it so, to our detriment.

I hope the next blog post, to outline some ways teachers can be subversive and help all students with as little labeling as possible.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

You may also like...

5 Responses

  1. Why all that? I ask myself quite often.
    Human Capital theory and the doubtful and misleading knowledge economy?
    I like the term ‘diploma disease’, and btw have you read about ‘The Opportunity Trap’? I think it’s Phillip Brown who coined it, interesting analysis of current educational aims.

  2. ddeubel says:


    I’m heading to the big city (and libraries!) and I’ll look that one up. I do know of Phillip Brown and the title sounds intriguing.

    Undoubtably, it is about “profit” and “business” but that’s only a part of it. I think it has to do with a number of other societal factors and also how slow and ossified such structures/systems as “schools” and “education” become. Almost impossible to shift them other than throwing them out…

    But I don’t think we need ever be victims. Lots of small things we teachers “under the thumb” can do. I hope to talk about that without getting too much into the polemics and any Marxist leanings and ramblings about “human capital”.

    It isn’t easy “being” in school. It really is conformist and ineffective. That at the end of the day, is something we have to as a society confront.

  3. Juregen says:


    You formulated quite succinctly the “malaise” of institutionalized education.

    I have developed the curriculum of my school in trying to avoid the pitfalls of senseless competetive learning, which is purely an external force (parents and teachers).

    To compete with oneself is the true challenge, and not only as a student, but as a teacher.

    Most intstitutions breed a sense of laziness into their students (and teachers).

    One problem is the extreme standardisation of tests, we do this to test our mettle with the world and how we might fit into it. But that is fundamentally wrong if we assume that each person is a unique individual with specific needs, wants and abilities. It is the wrong kind of standardization. It is the standardization of Henry Ford “you can have any color as long as it is black” mentallity.

    I often have to fight the reigning mentality of students of the concept of “good enough”, it is the mentality of a lazy person, who’s ambition is measured by performing what others want them to achieve, instead of finding the magic within and maximising the potential to reach that magic.

    I could fill an entire book with my personal disgust of the educational institutions, and the way they treat their students.

  4. David Warr says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Learning is organic, not written in stone.

  5. ddeubel says:


    Between the both of us, we’d have an encyclopedia!

    Yeah, it is depressing but in education I refuse to be a pessimist. I keep doing what I can and really urge all others to do the same, despite the grips of a system that won’t help us breathe. There is a lot of redemption in that….


    Yes, we need more thoughts about education as a natural process or more to the point, learning as a natural thing we all do! So many think that kids/students not in school “don’t ” learn. They do, just not what we want or how we’d measure it. But learning is something in our veins and organic, as you say…. we can’t “not learn”. The question is always, “what will we learn or develop for our students to learn instead of something else?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Please prove that you are not a robot.

Skip to toolbar