No Contest

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I generally find myself reading books that have been published recently since so many are published daily, but over the summer I went back to read a 1986 classic by Alfie Kohn called No Contest: The Case Against Competition. While the second edition was published in 1992, there has been very little discussion of the book recently. That is surprising because Kohn presents an argument that is very provocative and controversial, and would have a profound impact on K-12 education.

Cover of

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Briefly, Kohn’s thesis is that our entire culture of competition is destructive to child development, and stunts the growth of intrinsic motivation. He cites numerous studies in which students that were given a carrot for completing a project produced inferior work in comparison with those students having no external incentives. Kohn is well aware of the role of sports in the lives of our students, and makes the arguable point that competitive sports is only advantageous for the best athletes while the rest of the competitors are hurt by competition. He does say that the focus of sports should be on personal excellence rather than winning.

After completing the book, I found myself torn. Kohn’s arguments are very convincing and well-presented (some critics argue his conclusions go beyond the data), but they fall short in the litmus test of reality. What would it take to alter the values of an entire society? Even if we agreed that eliminating a culture of competition would improve the human condition, how would we get there? One major premise of our schools is that individuals should strive to do better than other students because getting ahead leads to success. How do we alter our beliefs and commit to personal excellence of the kind that Malcolm Gladwell describes?

More importantly, why did Kohn’s book fade into oblivion when he had identified a fundamental cultural bias that, according to him, is destructive to child development and adult happiness? Why did innovative educators not embrace Kohn’s proposal and test it on a somewhat limited scale. From my brief research, it appears that there were very few initiatives in schools that produced any significant results, and a few initiatives died due to parental pressure to maintain a competitive environment. I hope some of you will read the book, and think carefully about he implications of Kohn’s proposals.

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Summertime… à la “Porgy and Bess”

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“Summertime — and the living is easy….” Oh, the life of a teacher/instructional technologist when school is not in session! Or is it? As we move into the last month of the traditional summer break, I can reflect on whether my summer has been easy. So far, I have prepared and taught two week-long workshops, attended and presented at a technology conference, helped pack and move two children from one state to another, and begun to prepare for the fall. When does the fall begin? August 20, when our school launches a large professional development program called Choate iPadU. On that day, we begin two weeks of workshops designed to prepare faculty for the iPad program that begins when our students return to school. So, I am working diligently on the curriculum, and trying to incorporate it into iTunesU, a platform with which I was relatively unfamiliar until a week ago. In addition I am reviewing and enhancing a new World History curriculum developed by a few of my colleagues, preparing for an evaluation of Learning Management Systems, developing an ongoing professional development and support plan for the iPad program, retooling the courses I will teach this fall, and getting a head start on college recommendations for my students, Other than teaching classes, grading student work, and attending meetings, a good number of days are not that different than a typical day during the school year. 

That’s really the point regarding most teachers I know (public and private schools). Summers are not quite the two month vacation the general public and the traditional media might imagine. The craft of teaching (it is a craft, not a science) is far more challenging than many outsiders think. During the school year, days are long and exhausting. They extend well beyond the class day. In the summer, the days are different, but many are equally busy in different ways. Summer is the time for rejuvenation, retooling, learning new ways to improve teaching and learning, and to enable some downtime. Rest means less stress, and that means better thinking and ideas. So the living may not always be easy in the summertime, but it does provide a pace that is conducive to the kind of work that helps teachers to hone their craft. Some easy living is in order for all fo us, but most of the summertime is preparation for another challenging and fulfilling year.

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