The perks and perils of competition #lessonswecanlearnfromteachers

12 March 2016
Long Game Articles

This article is an extract from a forthcoming book, The Long Game: The Lessons We Can Learn From Long-Serving Teachers. The aim was to interview long-serving teachers, listen to their stories and see if I could draw out any lessons from their experiences. Constructive comments are welcome; they will help me make it a better book.

Do teachers think competition is a bad thing? I think it is a gross misrepresentation to think they do: most experienced teachers take a nuanced and subtle view of competition. Headteacher David Mansfield’s story of his school days is instructive here. He spoke to me in the summer of 2013 just before he was about to move to Beijing to run a number of private schools in China; it was a significant promotion for him but a difficult one to achieve because it is hard to be “promoted” after being a headteacher, which he had been for over a decade.

I was ever so slightly anti-establishment. At primary school, I used to get slippered by the head for my bad behaviour, and I think my parents thought bloody hell, what’s going on with me so they sent me to a high-powered prep school. It was a prep school where very straight forwardly they put everybody in one subject in batting order one to fifteen or one to twenty, depending on the size of the class. You were put in rank order of how you were doing: at the end of each term all the marks were added up and the form was put in order. During my first term, I came seventh in the form because I was studying French and Latin for the first time; the second term I came sixth, and the third term, when I was aged nine or ten, I came first. And I think for the next nine terms I came top. I learnt that my identity was to be top. The competition spurred me on to become a good sportsman; I was accelerated into the first term for hockey, and cricket, and I played a lot of rugby; I became a school prefect very early on in the prep school.

I enjoyed success, it was a bit like a drug but I think it was frightening to live with. I’ve always lived with the ambiguity and tension of achieving highly but worrying that I might fall from my perch. You could say that I liked success but actually I don’t identify with it. And I suppose all the way through my life I have struggled to move to a place where actually attainment and achievement is unimportant. But I still do like it the fact that I’m moving onto Bejing from a really successful school which most people should be very happy to remain head of. I think this indicates that I’m always looking for something more. While I am loath to admit it, I do feel defined, to a certain extent, by some external verification. Maybe I am, at heart, always looking to prove something to my Dad (who is now dead) or prove to myself that I’m OK. But it’s also that I like new challenges.

The lessons to be learnt here are interesting but they are not straightforward. David clearly shows that he was motivated by the competitive environment of his prep school, but he is aware that this competitive drive has led him at times to do things in order to get ahead rather than doing them because he is intrinsically interested in doing them. He talks about the “ambiguity and tension” of doing well; it is ambiguous because, on the one hand, you are enjoyed the approbation of the world and the satisfaction of achieving but, on the other hand, you are worried that you might “fall from your perch”, not do as well as you have previously done.  Perhaps missing from his account is any mention of what happened to the children who were placed at the bottom of his prep school. The competition at his prep school, coupled with David’s desire to prove himself to his father, engendered within him an inner-drive to succeed but does being bottom of a school produce the same results? The evidence suggests not; many students, even if they are very clever, often give up if they are an environment where everyone else is doing better than them. So we can see the sort of “blanket competition” of “bench-marking” – the term given to putting children in rank order of their test scores – is not productive. Perhaps this explains why David never introduced it into the schools where he was headteacher.

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