Thursday, January 21, 2016

Competition Improves Math Skills

I'm not a fan of spelling bees. And, that's a bit surprising considering my background in English and my own son's prowess in that area. But I'm more of the Brian Regen school of spelling bees, which means I think they're a collossal waste of time and nothing but trivial challenges with no correlation to valuable skills or learning. That said, I am not opposed to the value of competition as a motivator for academic success. And, that's not surprising considering my son's prowess in the world of Math Counts. In fact, his success and passion for math was initially fueled by a teacher promoting competitions like Math Counts, Math Madness, Math Challenge, etc. And, "video games" for him are often simply competing on "For the Win." Truly, competitions like Math Counts, the National Science Fair, and others have significant ability to engage students - especially boys - in academics. In fact, if Bill Gates really wanted to improve math skills and academics in school, he would start funding big prizes for competitors in contests like Math Madness or Math Counts.

And, as EducationNext reports today, there is sound validity to the role of competition in increasing academic achievement. The Game Plan for Learning is about the history and reseach on the value of competition in learning.

So Coleman challenged educators to rethink how they viewed competition.

Writing two years later in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society, he noted that educators had long been suspicious of academic competition, but that they unwittingly used it every day when handing out letter grades. The problem, he said, was that the competition in most classrooms was interpersonal. Shift the emphasis—make it interscholastic, that is, school versus school—and the suspicion gives way to celebration. “When a boy or girl is competing, not merely for himself, but as a representative of others who surround him, then they support his efforts, acclaim his successes, console his failures,” Coleman wrote. “His psychological environment is supportive rather than antagonistic, is at one with his efforts rather than opposed to them. It matters little that there are others, members of other social communities, who oppose him and would discourage his efforts, for those who are important to him give support to his efforts.”

Coleman proposed that schools should replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education. It wouldn’t be easy, he predicted: schools would need “considerable inventiveness” to come up with the right vehicles for competition. But they already had a few good models, including math and debate competitions, as well as drama and music contests. He noted that the RAND Corporation and MIT had already established “political gaming” contests with great success.

In the early 1960s, Coleman developed six games and tested them in Baltimore schools. Teachers, he would later write, “came to share our enthusiasm for this reconstruction of the learning environment.” But he admitted that his vision was “not realized,” even though a handful of fellow researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere piloted academic games with great success.

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