Five years ago, I decided that I wanted to run a half marathon. I had run lots of 5Ks, many 10Ks, yet had never taken on 13.1 miles. I was in my early 40s and so maybe I could chalk it up to any number of generalizations, however it ended up being a powerful learning adventure for me and has influenced my work as an educator.
Faced with the question of Collaboration vs Competition, I found myself in that quick struggle to choose one or the other. And after further reflection, I found myself, similar to most educators (I suppose), reaching for collaboration. Of course it has to be that, right? Either as a product of working with Professional Learning Communities (PLC), leading a large campus, or simply being part of a larger Professional Learning Network (PLN), I have routinely placed myself among others working on something larger. All of this was churning through my head as I ran a tempo run earlier this week in hopes of setting a new personal record (PR) in an upcoming race. And then it hit me. Given one condition, I am convinced that competition maximizes collaboration.
The concept of Zero Sum is often used in negotiations and business dealings. It is centered on the idea that whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other. The concept of “winners” and “losers” naturally grows from this idea and, I would suggest, consumes our notions of competition. When the Astros play the Rangers, one team wins and another loses. When our boys basketball team plays its rival, once the competition is completed, there is one team feeling successful while another looks for corrections. Yet, if we shift competition away from the idea of Zero Sum, and look at it more similar to track, cross country, or swimming, then I believe competition enhances collaboration. Personally, each year I run the Houston Half Marathon with 25000 other people and I will never win. Yet, I can set a new PR (get smarter/faster/stronger) and the race (competition) brings me to that outcome.
Competition can also bring a sense of purpose to collaboration. If you are bringing a group of people together to work interdependently on something then the idea of getting smarter, faster, or stronger should be part of the discussion. And when that team has an achievable goal or standard in front of them, then there is a measuring stick to use at the conclusion.
Certainly there are other schools in my district that we measure ourselves with and I am always protective of how my teachers are perceived when it comes to growing kids each year. So there is a sense of competition. However, similar to when someone is passing me in the Half Marathon (which often occurs more than the reverse), I am happy for them. As I have learned that together we compete yet the individual growth I make in my performance is for me alone. There really are no winners or losers.
Thus I would leave this post with the idea that once we shift from the Zero Sum idea of competition, our students can benefit tremendously as we collaborate to create the best learning experiences for them. Making them smarter, faster, and stronger brings the potential for all types of rewards.