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A Bunch of C-Words

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Ahem. Competitive, Cooperative. College, Career.

Being competitive is a positive trait for business in America these days. Businesses must get to the top, and they only want the very best people to get them there! We even have entire “reality” TV shows about getting to the top (including Survivor, America’s Next Top Model, The Amazing Race, Creature Shop Challenge, American Ninja Warrior, Project Runway and, of course, The Apprentice). Success, especially very-public success, is clearly rewarded. What’s wrong with success? Why shouldn’t my kid do the best and be the best? Some college applications still ask about class rank, and kids still vote for “Most Likely to Succeed”, right?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with success. After all, who doesn’t want to be successful? But maybe there’s a problem with defining “success” (or even “competitive”) as “being-top-dog-all-the-time”. Even for schools without explicit class rankings, students make their own comparisons and know their place in the line. There’s a world of difference between being a leader or top of the class and being domineering and/or a poor winner. Someone posted a link to this op-ed on America’s obsession with getting kids competitive, as well as this one, advocating not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It reminds me of this NYTimes bit on Worriers and Warriors and the genetic component with how kids (and adults) handle stress.

As a non-competitive person, I think that all of that stress and pressure to be Number 1 has to be draining. Parents start their kids in pee-wee soccer at age three (okay, some start soccer for sheer exercise, but some have actual goals in mind for their kids), they have to get their kid into the highest-ranked pre-schools and private schools, they make their kids sign up for lists of AP courses and music lessons and tutoring (although UNC researchers recently found that more AP courses predict better college GPAs, but only up to five courses before a plateau), and there’s tons of leadership camps and courses in- and outside of school. Moreover, if a kid must be on top of every list (i.e., aggressive domination), that’s at the expense of every other kid.

Many of today’s teaching methods include cooperative skills and training (Think, Pair, Share; group work; global pen pals; lab partners; etc.). These techniques increase information processing (over passively listening to lectures in class) and boost student learning. This doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of student-leaders, but possibly a reduced emphasis on the domineering aspects that can come with domination of some students over others. I’m not saying that a school-room’s goal should be to have across-the-board even achievement with no rankings (that’s silly and unrealistic). Leaders don’t necessarily have to be cut-throat and aggressive; instead, they can help others to find their best traits. Again, students always compare themselves to others, and everyone knows who the smart kid is in the room.

What do competition and collaboration in K-12 education have to do with the President’s goals for students to be “college– and career-ready”? Lots, but there’s also a gap. Arguably, kids need both some sort of drive (competitive nature) and social skills (collaborative skills) to survive much of further school (college) and employment (career). So how do we know students actually have the skills they’ll need in college? Standardized tests cover course-content in (English) language arts, and math (and sometimes science). But neither competition (except athletic) nor collaborative skills are tested in public schools. Common Core curricula advocate for flexibility in thinking and understanding, rather than for merely finding correct answers (confirmed by this amazing article from the NY Times talking about why Americans stink at math).

What’s not been mentioned? Creativity. Culture. Cross-disciplinary. Compassion. These traits are, similarly, hard to measure or even define. But most people, certainly colleges, view them as important.

So is bridging the gap a K-12 teacher problem? Kinda. There are lots of teachers who are changing or have already changed their methods for the better. But there are many more who need to: some refuse to do so, and some don’t know how to. Is this also a post-secondary problem? Kinda. There’s a big difference between getting numbers about kids and getting the kids. Is this a parent problem? Kinda. Expectations and support for kids will, of course, vary for each family.

There seems to be a big communication gap between what all the parties want in their kids for each stage of their education, and what they get out of them later. So perhaps a more pertinent questions is, what do you want for your kids, and why do you want it?

Even better: give your kids some say. What do your kids want, and why?

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