The Role of Competition and Culture in our Education Systems

By Kate Ericksen

Recently, I watched a video on You Tube1 showing 5 North Korean kindergarten children playing classical guitar together. They were playing them like pros with (dare I say it) plastic smiles and synchronized turning on their chairs. The performance was very polished and I watched with both a sense of awe and disbelief. I was wondering if the footage was really genuine, as it just did not seem possible that such young children could be playing such complicated classical guitar with such flourish and perfection.

However, what I found even more interesting was to read though the comments that people had written below the video. This video definitely sparked a powerful trigger with many people around the world and some rather heated arguments and discussions ensued. They ranged from awe and admiration, to disgust at how the parents must have pushed them so much, to a criticism of communist state education, which doesn’t allow children to experience childhood. A grown-up child performer wrote, who had been forced to practice for hours a day on the guitar, talking about how he would have bleeding hands, and the sacrifice that this required. Others admired the development of the brain which would have occurred due to this musical training and wished that in their culture, they took education as seriously as in Asia. These viewers’ comments echoed many of the sentiments that have passed through my head in the last few days, as I reflected upon a performance that I took part in judging recently in a school in the Philippines.

My purpose in writing this article is to explore the issues that surround competition in schools, across cultures and to reflect on whether the inclusion of competition at a young age encourages healthy development and promotes our neo-humanistic vision, or whether it goes ultravires to it. I will look at how cultural perceptions influence the way in which schools function and how we can encourage more “buy in” by staff at our schools to truly model the values we say we teach, of which our views on competition are one such value.

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Competition and Education

Competition is considered by many as healthy, a fact of life, and is an implicit part of education, in which grades are regularly assigned and students ranked against each other in class reports in many countries. We are all subjected to competition when we enter the workforce –competing against others to win the job, so the earlier we are exposed to it, the reasoning seems to go, the better prepared we will be to meet the challenges it poses. Thus, we should learn how to deal with disappointment – a natural consequence of competition – since there is only ever one winner and many losers.

As a classroom teacher, I have observed how having an element of competition in certain activities definitely does enhance interest and concentration. It seems a natural element in growing up, for example children regularly organize their own informal competitions at home, from simple activities, like who can make their ice-cream last the longest, to who can get the ball into the basket the most times.

Kids love guessing games, and I regularly employ “breathers” during formal lessons, in which we hold silly competitions to re-energise the class and provide a break from the challenges of academics. I wonder though how to tailor programs so that “healthy” competition does not become unhealthy. Where do you draw the line? How do you create competitions that encourage and motivate students, yet do not mean that some students’ self esteem will be damaged? What role would the assessment systems in a true neo-humanist school have on student self esteem and willingness to participate and learn? How, as neo-humanist educators, do we reflect our values in the different cultures in which we run our classes and schools?

Education theorists do not agree on whether competitive desires should be encouraged or constrained. One theory claims that, since competition is part of every culture and since education should transmit culture, it is necessary to incorporate competition into education to help children get used to it in later life. Another theory views competition as opposed to collaboration and, therefore, as an evil element in culture that should be curtailed. At school this often results in an ambiguous attitude towards competition, which confuses students, who will then try to compete successfully without making it appear they compete.

“It may help to distinguish two views of competition. In one view, all other competitors are perceived as the focus of competition; they need to be defeated. In the second view, the focus is oneself or some external entity (such as the clock or a mathematical problem). The latter view is more conducive to teamwork, which has become even more important in modern society.” [my emphasis][i] 

School counselors invariably are against the absurdity of some of the competitiveness that occurs in schools, because they have to deal with the fallout – distraught students whose hopes have been dashed, those who can’t face their peers or teachers after being judged negatively, and those who become suicidal due to extreme pressures of competition – a well-known side effect of the stringent Japanese education system.

As part of a two year enquiry led by Cambridge University, British educators are now recognizing the damaging effects of competition on children’s education, especially in the primary years. The study revealed that rewards for good grades have a negative impact and suggests that teachers should praise “effort” instead of success. Children who believe that their intelligence is fixed are less likely to make an effort to learn, whereas those who believe that their intelligence can grow will try harder. They found that “offering rewards on a competitive basis” affected pupils’ perception of their classmates. Shy children often became “increasingly quiet or subdued” or were reduced to “passive scribes of a dominant child’s ideas”.[ii]

Many of the comments related to the Korean children’s performance referred to earlier, reflected the cultural bias of those from different education systems and their concept of a “proper” childhood. As our AMSAI schools are often run by international personnel, we have the benefit of looking at things from a different perspective to the local culture, but we also need to maintain a balanced view and remember that every culture has both positive and negative aspects, including our own “home” culture. How do we sieve out and use the different positive aspects of both to enhance our curriculums and systems of school management, whilst reducing the negative ones? How do we influence the teachers’ styles of teaching to reflect these values? If our teachers don’t understand our values or don’t place importance on them, what do we do?

Education reflects the culture of society in its current evolution

The most memorable education paper I read at the University talked about the development of the concept of childhood as being only a very recent phenomenon. Prior to about 1850, children in the Western world were viewed as tiny adults, who were expected to undertake the same responsibilities and tasks as adults, albeit imperfectly, due to their undeveloped physical structures – thus earning them repeated beatings and scoldings. Child labour was the norm and “education” was the domain of rich children who received private tuition from hired subject tutors and governesses.

This system is still the norm in many “undeveloped” countries of the world today, where older girls do not attend school, or attend intermittently, because their main responsibility is to assist the mother in the raising of younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, feeding and caring for sick infants etc. Boys may be expected to help out in the farm instead of going to school, or be withdrawn from school at key times in the agricultural calendar to help the father, or as an apprentice in his chosen profession. A child (and subsequently a teacher) raised in this type of world is going to have quite a different set of values and expectations than those of a child raised in a society which views childhood as a prolonged period of dependency and the opportunity to “have fun” without worrying about livelihood, where children are raised on a diet of TV, computer games and out of school hobbies are encouraged. (The teachers whom I worked with in Ghana did not understand the word “hobbies” and what it implied).

Only in the last two hundred years, since the Industrial Revolution, has formal education become the domain of the common person. With the rise of factories, there arose a system of “factory” education in which students are mass produced, much like material commodities. Our schooling systems today reflect this global emphasis on capitalism, competition and materialism – the ostensible aim is to produce happy and balanced children who will slot into the workforce with a minimum of effort from employers. Needs should meet the demand. When there is a gap between the two, then the education system must change to accommodate this. Verhoef, author of an interesting article on the different types of competitions included in educational practise explains further:

“As the demands on a society change, its culture changes, and consequently also its educational practices must change. Though difficult to understand in detail, this process of change appears to be a never-ending, self-propelling cycle. In order for a system with feedback to be stable, the response to change must be delayed. Education, therefore, always seems too late in its adjustment. Currently, the knowledge and skills to survive in what has become known as the information society are being incorporated.”[iii]

School driven missions and objectives

The public school in New Zealand, where I have worked for the last few years, last year undertook professional training in a program called PB4L – Positive Behaviour for Learning. This program has been used successfully in difficult and low socio-economic schools in Australia, US and around the world. Part of this program meant the school had to go through considerable consultation processes with parents, teachers and children to identify those core values felt to be important by the community. Once identified, then it is the role of teachers to transmit them and make students very conscious of them. Parents are expected to follow up on this back home too.

We came up with the “3 B’s” – Be respectful, Be responsible, Be safe. It was important that the values were simple and easy to remember. This then meant that we looked at ways in which we could promote this message. Certificates are now issued on a weekly basis at school assemblies to those students who display these core values. Students who display these values at lunchtime have their names put in a raffle which is drawn at each weekly assembly, of which prizes include educational books. Lessons in social graces and being a helpful citizen were designed during staff training sessions, where we broke into different groups and looked at different behaviours we wished to see our students modeling. These behaviours (such as sitting whilst eating or standing in a line before moving quietly through the school) were then explicitly taught, rather than students being expected to learn them through osmosis.

How does this relate to competition in schools? For me, it shows that it is important to take the time to sit down with teachers and stakeholders at the school to really identify those values which we deem to be important, and to then use these as a guide against which to judge the various programs we implement across the school. Having all people contributing in the process means that those initiatives will then be taken on board by more people, rather than it just being a decree that comes down from management. So – the values in a Neo-Humanist school are intricately linked with Yama and Niyama. What about actually looking at our school programs in the light of two or three of these principles and really reflecting on and thinking deeply about what we are doing. I mean a deep reflection, not a superficial one. If you were to choose three values, what would they be? Would “be respectful” then influence your policies on competition? How?

Despite groaning about it at times, it has meant that head teachers have been provided with a clear insight into how to guide the teams of teachers beneath them in the implementation of these values. Many insightful discussions amongst teachers have been initiated and plans of action formed, which I would say deeply reflected neo-humanist values and a respect and empathy for the students in their care. It has altered the way that we run sports competitions at our school and infiltrates every aspect of the school programs and systems that are put in place. It affects the way a teacher sets up her classroom, and the way that problems are dealt with between students when they are encountered.

Shrii PR Sarkar on Competition

What does the founder of Neohumanist Education have to say about the role of competition in education? When I questioned the benevolence of competition, I was told by some that Shrii PR Sarkar was very much pro-competition. I came across this quote early on in my research on competition amongst Sarkar’s extensive writing:

“Kaos’ikii [a yogic dance for physical health] is beneficial for both men and women. Competition in tándava [men’s yogic dance] and kaos’ikii is very good and encouraging. I strongly support it. There should be competitions wherever there are Ananda Margiis [practitioners of a specific system of yoga and meditation]. There should be competitions even where there are no Ananda Margis. There is no harm in it; rather it is beneficial in all respects.” [iv] 

I understand this quote to relate directly to the performance of kaoshikii and tandava competitions, not as a blanket statement about the beneficial nature of competitions across all areas. It is this quote however, which I suspect is being referred to, when I am told that Shrii PR Sarkar approved of competitions. If the last two sentences are taken out of context, then certainly, it would seem that he approved of all types of competition.

I delved deeper to see if I could find other statements, which would either support the assumption that all competitions are beneficial, or whether it is relating to purely tandava and kaoshiki. This is what I came across:

“…to bring about the real well-being of humanity, greater attention has to be paid to the psychic and intellectual expressions of human beings, for that will lead to perfect spiritual composure and all-round fulfilment in human life. Competition in the realm of physical pabula may bring satisfaction in material enjoyment, but it leads human beings far, far away from inner tranquility.”[v] 

So, in this quote Shrii PR Sarkar is saying that competition may bring about material benefits, as economists have proven to be true, and winners of Olympic medals, may vouch for this too – but for those trying to develop “perfect spiritual composure” and “inner tranquility” it will lead them far away. This then, seems to be key to our education system– where greater attention has to be “paid to the psychic and intellection expressions of human being.” This would then imply that we should carefully look at the types of competition we encourage in our schools, and gear them more towards competition to better one’s own performance rather than against another child.

In conclusion, I would encourage directors of our neohumanist schools across the globe to initiate discussions with their staff, in which they were not preaching at them and trying to change them, but rather recognizing them as fellow travelers on the path to realization. Take the time to seek their valuable opinions and expertise in the culture in which they are teaching. Together plan or alter programs to fit in alignment with a set of shared values which is co-created by all stakeholders in the school, and which then become part of the school’s motto and is displayed visibly around the school.

As both an educator and a spiritual aspirant, it is valuable to take time out to reflect on our actions and systems and how they either nurture or conflict with the values we say we espouse. By promoting the type of competition which focuses on improved self-performance, rather than against a competitor, it actually encourages colloboration and co-operative learning, which are surely aspirations for our neo-humanist schools.

[i]   Dr Tom Verhoff The Role of Competitions in Education, 1997 –
[iii] Dr Tom Verhoff The Role of Competitions in Education, 1997
[iv]  PR Sarkar, “Tandava and Kaoshikii” – The Awakening of Women [a compilation] [v]   PR Sarkar, Ananda Vanii – Ánanda Púrnimá 1989