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Teaching through competition in the classroom

6 min read
  • The science of learning

Is competition a good thing in the classroom? This blog is jointly written by a psychologist and a teacher. It gives a brief overview of one of the most famous studies in this area, a practical example of the use of competition within lessons, as well as tips on how to best manage it.

The Psychologist

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of InnerDrive

One of the most famous studies into group cohesion, conflict and competition was conducted by researcher Muzafer Sherif in his ‘Robbers Cave’ study. This study divided 22 young boys in two groups. All of the boys in the study were the same age, came from white middle class backgrounds, were protestant and lived with both their parents. In essence, they were as similar to each other as possible.

The boys were assigned into the two groups at random. They were told to give their group a name (they chose ‘The Eagles’ and ‘The Rattlers’), design their own flag and make their own uniforms. The power of being part of a group was evident very early on. The boys in each group quickly bonded as they had a number of shared experiences, such as group hikes or swimming parties. The children were very engaged with the tasks they did and were motivated to actively participate.

However, the researchers then had the two groups meet up with each other. The two groups competed against one another for limited resources. Without an adult to guide their behaviour, this suddenly created a lot of tension between them. The researchers were actually surprised by how much animosity existed between the two groups. For example, during a training session before a sports match, the Rattlers even refused to let the Eagles on to the pitch to practice.

Despite coming from identical backgrounds and being divided into two groups at random, they found that just being a member of a group had a very powerful force on each boys’ behaviour.

What is clear from this study, is that creating a group culture can help children bond, learn and strive for excellence. This is reinforced by the creating of group norms and subculture. Competition and being part of a group can be good. It can motivate and inspire and can be fun.

In the first part of this study, the boys were focused on mastery rather than performance. However, left unchecked, without adult supervision and when competing for limited resources, competition can do more harm than good. In the second part of the study, the focus went away from developing their own skills within the team to trying to hinder the opposition team. As with most things, it is not what the intervention is, but how it is delivered that matters.

To summarise, competition can be good if it focuses on:

  • Skill development – focusing more on skill rather than just outcomes
  • Self-referenced – is focused on individual development rather than comparison
  • Supported – challenge without support results in stress
  • The tasks are challenging but realistic

The Teacher

Dave Marsham is a teacher of seven years. He currently teaches Maths and History at Bedford Academy:

Competition is something that comes naturally to me – I’ve always grown up an avid football fan. I’m not gifted as a player, and I never have been, and so it was never a case of growing up competitively in sports. Also I support West Ham United so it certainly wasn’t ever a case of growing up enjoying the feeling of winning.

However, I have always found that the sense of competition gets the best out of me and that has then affected how I teach and I’d certainly implement a sense of competition in to all of my lessons and all of my classes where I have seen frequent positive responses. As long as competition contains a sense of respect, is sustainable and the students don’t feel that they are being bribed into good behaviour, then it should work if my experience is anything to go by.  My version of using competition is very simple and has worked effectively year after year, class after class.

Firstly, this concept has to be bought into. You have to embed it into everything the students do for it to work – behaviour, presentation, achievement, punctuality – everything. I tell my students about it from day one and often they don’t care tremendously about it in that first lesson. This is where others might abandon it, but I continue anyway as I have found it works better and better the more they understand how the competition works and the more it becomes embedded practice. Every lesson needs to have opportunities for both teams to earn points (and definitely not for one team to earn points at the expense of the other as this leads to conflict).

In the first lesson I do my homework; I find out about the students’ behaviour records, their reputations amongst staff, their previous grades and progress. Then I split the class into two and that forms my seating plan. I mix up the students equally between those with challenging behaviour, those who are high achievers and those who are known to have positive attitudes to learning and the teams then stay locked in all year. Now, from this moment on everything they do gets their team points. This ranges from who enters the room quietest to who writes the date, title and objectives the quickest and neatest. They also win points if they demonstrate respect towards one another when packing away.

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As was indicated in the study that Bradley cited, competition can generate a lack of respect towards others. The way I combat this is to judge students not only on the speed and quality of their work/routines but also how respectful they are when doing this. For example, when doing something as simple as handing out materials, teams receive points for handing these out the quickest, the quietest and with the highest level of respect towards the equipment, each other and the other team. This makes the students aware that social intelligence and etiquette are things I value and so, in turn, they learn to value them in order to gain points for their teams.

These points then get tallied up at the end of the lesson. Next lesson the tally continues from where it left off. The longer term rewards can be whatever you like – personally I go for simple rewards such as an achievement point or the privilege of choosing the activity for the last lesson of term at Christmas, Easter and Summer. The reward can be whatever you choose but what I have found is that students are motivated by the competition not the reward so my advice would be to keep it simple.

These rewards are sustainable and effortless and, ultimately, have no cost to me in time, money or effort. In return I have students competing all year to meet my expectations (which in turn becomes their own) and make progress in lessons.

The best part about it, for me, is the reward that motivates them the most is getting to choose what both the winning and losing teams get to do in the final lesson of the term. I sometimes cite an example of choosing to play games whilst the losing team sit a test. However, not once has this occurred as the teams end up rewarding each other with something like a film and snacks (a sure sign that the competition hasn’t turned into conflict).

It sounds simple. I have seen it fail miserably but only when the teacher hasn’t committed fully to it and used it consistently or has not embedded the important level of respect. It is simple and, for me, embedded in my teaching practice now so much that I’d be lost without it.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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