Compete or cooperate: Why not both?

Peter Smagorinsky is distinguished research professor of English Education at the University of Georgia.

I used to play a lot of basketball when my body was younger. One court where I played every night was at the local high school gym, which could be divided so that two full-court games could be played simultaneously. One court was dedicated to older, more serious, more skilled players; the other was for younger players of lesser talent.

I was good enough for the high-intensity court, which used the “winners” system in which the winning team got to play the next game against a new pickup team. Often, teams had to wait several games to get back on the court, which placed a high value on winning once you got a chance to play. Losing teams might have to wait a half-hour or more just to get another shot.

The message was clear: If I wanted to be good, I shouldn’t play against weak competition. The better the competition, the better I got at the game. I might dominate the secondary court’s lesser players, but in doing so, I cut corners and got sloppy because I could get away with mistakes and still succeed. On the main court, I might be an average player, but in doing so became a better player. The competition is what made the difference.

Among the many great divides in public opinion is whether or not schools should be competitive. To some people, school should be a training ground for the life beyond. Students must thus compete academically and socially for goods, as they will later do for salaries, promotions and other rewards of productive life in our economy, and do so in every aspect of their educations.

Others see competition as the root of much evil. Competition breeds corruption, as evidenced by cheating scandals great (APS test-score changing) and small (kids taking cellphone shots of exam questions for their friends). Kids cheat on tests, teachers run student work through Turnitin.com and other plagiarism software programs, schools fudge their test score data, administrators get awards and bonuses for bogus scores, and so on. When winning is the point, the rules are optional as long as no one’s looking. Just ask the Atlanta teachers headed to prison on racketeering charges for 5 to 20 years.

I don’t see the question as being whether competition is good or bad, or that competition should either permeate the schooling experience or be absent from it altogether. The question, I think, is better framed as one of when competition is appropriate, and when it is counterproductive.

Those who argue against schools as sites of competition tend to speak on behalf of collaboration and cooperation over antagonism. Cooperative learning, for instance, tends to involve working in groups for problem-solving, without pitting one group against the other. The emphasis is on students generating ideas in search of a solution to a given problem or challenge.

The debate about competitiveness versus cooperation, I would argue, should not be about making a forced choice between two polar positions. Rather, the discussion should center on where in the educational system each produces the most desirable results. Note that they are not mutually exclusive, for basketball teams need to function cohesively to compete effectively against opponents.

If you’re looking for a rulebook here on when to compete and when to cooperate, you’re asking the wrong person. Instead, ask the teachers who know their students well and can make informed judgments how to structure learning activities to promote students’ growth in their disciplines and at the age levels they are teaching.

Just don’t expect them to decide it’s either one or the other, with no middle ground.