School is not a Competition

I promise to try my hardest to make this blog post not a rant about test scores and grades, but rather about attitudes. Plain and simple, I do not believe education and learning are about trying to outdo your classmate.

Education and competition are intertwined, yes, due to grades, test scores, and college admissions; I understand this. However, these things also create a culture and an attitude of caring more about the numbers and grades than about legitimate learning.

Competition is not all bad. In fact, one of my favorite activities in school is engaging in (and, of course, winning) a debate with my classmates. But viewing the schooling process as a means to outdo the rest of your class is severely detrimental to learning.

For instance, at the extreme end of this, countries like China and South Korea have cram schools where students do extra studying for things like college entrance exams. Cram schools are scary concepts. These places have such high stakes testing that the entire lives of students are literally spent preparing for those exams. The cram schools don’t foster learning, they encourage people to take shortcuts.

I’m not going to lecture you about how we are on a one way track to 6AM-10PM test prep, because I am trying to make a bigger point. Schooling in which the only point is to compete with your classmates hurts our society in two important ways. Firstly, it causes a culture of shortcuts in learning, like memorizing facts and equations, rather than understanding the material itself. Secondly, it discourages group work! One of the most important things people can learn is how to work together, but our “evaluations,” like tests and quizzes, aren’t meant to be done with the help of other people. That makes no sense! Students, we are each other’s most valuable resource.

Learning to work together isn’t some cliché that your kindergarten talks about, but rather it is much deeper. Cooperation and collaboration are two of the most important aspects of work at companies like Google and Facebook. These companies want employees to be able to work together to solve a problem or to come up with an idea. Collaboration is a beautiful thing, for these companies and for those of us who utilize their products. This is a very broad point, but let me relate it back to our culture of education as a competition. Collaboration and asking for help are important at companies, but school makes it seem like asking for help is not something “independent”, “real world people” do.

I know it sounds like I got off topic a lot there, but that just goes to show that all of this is related. Attitudes that use competition to foster “learning” don’t do that at all. They merely stress kids out, reduce collaboration, and encourage shortcuts, glossing over the real learning process. We need a schooling system that won’t encourage such competition between students. College admissions is what’s on everybody’s mind from the time they walk into school first period until they go to sleep at night. Not learning. That needs to change. Education has to be more than just getting a leg up on the rest. It should be about learning, and we should care about the rest of our classmates learning, and even help them learn and succeed. That is how school should work.

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