Non-Competitive Approaches Legitimise Envy

One reason often given for avoiding testing is that it will damage the self esteem of our pupils if they find out that others have performed better than they. They do indeed discover this, whether or not we tell them directly, as there is always a comparison of grades amongst class members once feedback has been given.

The same argument is used for holding non-competitive sports days. Won’t it hurt their feelings to find out that others are stronger and can run faster and jump higher than they? Won’t they be traumatised by all this public display of physical differences?

I’ve argued elsewhere for the necessity of testing from a pedagogical point of view, as well as for accountability. Here I want to focus on its role in building character. We need to ask ourselves what assumptions lurk beneath the idea that it is traumatic for children to discover that they are not the smartest, most knowledgeable, fastest or strongest in their class.

When we seek to protect pupils from that knowledge, we are assuming that it will necessarily lead to envious and bitter thoughts, as they nurse grudges and wounded pride following their public humiliation. These are indeed damaging experiences. But are they inevitable? Does the discovery that we are not in fact the best always have this result?

Finding out that we are not the best can have very positive results, if it is taken in the right way. It can be humbling, rather than humiliating, and we can work on overcoming any envious thoughts we might have. We can seek to congratulate those who have done better than we have; we can reflect on how much it benefits us to have such knowledgeable and intelligent peers.

So instead of seeking to protect pupils from the revelation that there are others who are smarter and more knowledgeable than they, we can teach them that envy and wounded pride are not the inevitable result of this knowledge. A humble and generous attitude will allow us to profit from our defeats, and this is what we should be helping our pupils to cultivate.

It’s not as if they will be able to go through the whole of their life thinking they are the best at everything. As with so many of these educational fashions, a non-competitive approach only creates an artificial bubble which temporarily shields pupils from reality, and will lead to a nasty shock later on. It is much better for our pupils to find out the truth about their own shortcomings, and deal with them in a way which contributes towards character development.


5 thoughts on “Non-Competitive Approaches Legitimise Envy

  1. Competitiveness can actually help some students strive to improve, since students generally enjoy recognition. In my math classes, when I handed back tests and quizzes, I would save the “A” results until the end starting from lowest A and ending on highest, announcing name and score. WIth each name and higher score, applause and cheering would get louder. In one class in which I had many Mexican students (some learning English), this activity was a highlight and with each higher score, they would start chanting: “Que cosa! Que cosa! Que cosa!”

    I don’t think publicizing bad scores is a good thing because of embarassment, but publicizing good scores does not hurt, contrary to popular edu-groupthink.


      • I wasn’t thinking of sports competitions where the results are obvious to all. But the adage of “praise publicly, criticize privately” may apply here. I.e., no need to bring attention to those who didn’t do well.


  2. I agree! I still remember a child joining my class in Year 4 and she was being shown around the room by one of the children. When she saw the groups she immediately asked which was the highest and the lowest!! Despite all the progressive attempts it is funny how children know about it regardless. Also, is it really true that we all so sensitive and need to be kept from such experiences? Or is just the people peddling these ideas?

    When I first started my Masters course, we were told by the Head of Department that we should take note that we would at some point come across someone who is smarter than us and that we would have to decide how to act. You could choose to help or hinder but to do the latter would not change the fact that the person was smarter, it would just involve you trying to stop them and them having to find a way around it. Better to help and accept the situation.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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