Competition and cooperation

I’m going to tell you a real story that took place a couple of years ago in a school where I worked. By that time, I was a second grade teacher in charge of twenty-seven students.

The headmistress had commissioned all the teachers to ask the kids to draw on a special sheet of paper some motifs related to the school’s patron saint. They were allowed to use markers, gouaches, color glues, etc.

The priest, who was the owner of this idea, thought this activity as a competition, to reward the best drawings by school grade. The teacher would be the person in charge to perform a ballot between the students to find the winner.

Finally, the day came. Some of my students had brought, besides of the requested materials, a lot of different items (like rolls of toilet paper and boxes) to make a 3D model. I didn’t say no, because I appreciated that they had had such idea.

Other kids asked me if they could work in pairs, because they wanted to combine their ideas. Of course, I said yes!

The clock was ticking: kids deployed all their creativity, they share their work tools, and some of them collaborated in their partner’s page.

At that moment, the headmistress entered the classroom with a notebook, ready to register the “winner” of that competition. The kids look at each other, without understanding what was going on.

Then I told them that they had to choose a winner just raising their hands and voting the best (using their own judgment); I asked the headmistress to return after a while. Kid voted and, as expected, every one picked up their own work, except three students, who decided to reward a friends’ production. That was the winner, with three votes. Only that child received a prize. All of   other students received a consolation prize.

And you will be wondering what happened with the kids that modeled a 3D sculpture… well, they were left out of this category and they were included in a new one where they were the only competitors. They never received their prize.

From that moment, the kids arrived to a sad conclusion: that it was important to compete in order to be better than the others.

This story got me thinking several questions:

If we’re in real troubles to decide if an artistic work is better than other (in what direction?) How can we expect that kids can vote? (with what criterion?)

Why do we start promoting competition between kids since short age? Why do we have the need to determine the best and the worst student?

How’s possible that we may not have grasped that small children are egocentric (as many adults) and they’re going to consider that their job is the best?

Let’s start thinking what attitudes we’d like to promote. What’s important for us? To raise children who think competition is necessary, even when they have to eliminate each other? Or promote cooperation and empathy?

What do you think?

Translation courtesy of Silvia Siccardi

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