How to Win: A Pedagogy of Competition

Note: This year in my 11th grade English class, I am experimenting with “Plan A”: If every student cooperates instead of competes, gives full effort every day, and takes responsibility for their own learning, then everyone is promised an A.  I’m not doing this to be nice; I’m doing it because I think it will help student learning.  For more details about Plan A, see the first blog post.

Before I reflect on my accommodation-centered experiment, I want to remember the person, coach, and teacher I used to be.  Before I write about shared documents and group presentations, I want to recall the fist fight between me and my best friend at our football practice twenty years ago, the nausea I felt after a few heart-breaking losses, and the exhilaration of my favorite victories.

Historically speaking, competition has always accelerated my learning curve, and improved me as a person.  In high school, I was notoriously uncompetitive with my studies and we would help each other study/cheat for every test, and I was a mediocre learner; in college, meanwhile, I wore a hood to every test and “trained” for every exam, and I earned almost all A’s.  As a cooperative friend and teammate in high school, I was pretty athletic but generally had an average build; in college, where it was much more clear that we young men were competing for the attention of young women, I soon benched 300 pounds and biked down the coast of California.  When Dr. Robertson turned up the heat in our graduate literature class, I published my first paper; when it was clear I was competing with my fellow grad students, I was soon speaking at conferences.

With countless other examples out there, I don’t think I need to belabor the point — we all know that competition can help sharpen our skills.  What I want emphasize is that the concept of competition used to be central to my own personal growth, and the absolute basis of my subsequent pedagogy. And I feel like it used to be the norm in our American culture.  Now, I often require my students to help each other, and I’m trying to give all of my students A’s.  What happened?


Over ten years ago, in grad school at the University of Colorado, I used to argue with Dr. Bickman in both his “pedagogy lab” and his transcendentalist literature class. On the first day of both classes, he promised us all A’s, let us design our own curriculum, and read at our own pace.  I wanted more.  I wanted my sword sharpened by competition, and I wanted to win.  
To be clear, I didn’t want my classmates to lose, and I believed the journey was more important than the destination. It’s just that I wanted to improve myself and others, and fierce competition has historically proven to be the most efficient (and fun) way to accomplish this.  Without exception, my heroes were all very competitive, and I admired and desired both their ultimate success and the journey that took them there. 
As a baseball coach a decade ago, I would quote Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.” I once kicked my JV team off the practice field for not taking a scrimmage against freshmen seriously enough. A former player still (fondly) remembers me pounding ground balls at him while his elbows were bleeding from diving so much.  When a rival coach was upset that my team tried their hardest to trigger the “mercy rule” against his second-place team, I told him from across the field that he should “get his team on the bus and go home.”  These were normal occurrences, and there are a hundred similar examples.  We scrimmaged in almost every practice, and the players competed fiercely for playing time.
I don’t want to paint a dark picture of another outrageous coach who thinks he’s teaching “the way of the fist” to the Cobra Kai.  First of all, we had fun.  A lot of fun.  I was often very intense, sometimes a little crazy, but never mean.  I would certainly raise my voice, sometimes in close proximity to the target, and occasionally with adult language, but always in reference to disciplining an action, which I thought (and still think) was fair and just.  I never criticized the player themselves (nothing like “you’re a loser”); I never made it personal. But I made a certain telephone pole famous for all the times the boys had to “run a pole” (run up a mountain to touch the telephone pole) for being late, or calling me Godsey instead of Coach Godsey, or even failing at certain mental drills.  But there was lots of time for games, and I remember a lot of laughing and cheering.  It was a really fun team.
I want to emphasize (because this will be important soon) that this was the culture.  The strict discipline, the yelling, the demand for excellence, the competitive drive to be the best, and the intensity was normal.  It was the culture that my favorite coaches presented me, and I think it was similar to what the parents of my players expected.  If I ever showed mercy on a player in terms of discipline, they usually refused it; they’d sometimes even discipline themselves before I could. In six or seven seasons, nobody complained, and there were no fights on the team.
Not only was it fun, but we went 105-35 over seven years, with five championships. Two of the players went on to play at Air Force, one at Hofstra, two at Fullerton, one at Hawaii, several at smaller colleges, and one of them just ended his career in the minor leagues (as high as AA). 
I didn’t see any reason why these coaching philosophies shouldn’t transfer over into the classroom. And for several years, they did.
As an AP English teacher at SLO High, my students competed in intense debates, there was a tournament bracket for poetry recitation, and my final was possibly the toughest test in the state of California. I can barely believe I did this now, but I would typically kick students out of class who hadn’t done their homework (they would sit outside in relative shame, and catch up on their reading). To help them practice personal statements for college admission, I invented a massive game where they applied to “mock colleges” run by other students, and were literally accepted, recruited, or rejected by their peers. Was it harsh? Sometimes. But it was fun, it made them focus on writing a great essay, and it stopped them from sending a bad essay to the college of their choice.  
Again, we had a lot of fun, and I was a popular teacher. The students elected me Grand Marshal of homecoming, I was often nominated as “Teacher of the Year,” and they asked me to speak at graduation festivities four different times.  The AP scores were very good; almost every student who wanted to attend a UC was accepted; and it wasn’t surprising when a few students were accepted at elite schools like Stanford and Harvard. My especial pride comes from the former students who are delighted to see me. Without exception, they tell me how fun my class was; and without exception, they tell me how easy their college English classes were/are (at any school) in comparison to mine.

I really miss those classes.
So what happened?  Why have so many things not only shifted, but morphed into their opposite?
We used to always compete; now my students almost never compete against each other.
I used to spend three solid days commenting on papers; now the students typically self-assess.
We used to laugh at “the standards”; now my students have them in a packet on their desks.
Earning an A used to be a badge of honor; now it’s practically given to them.
I used to offer only one “accommodation”: the freedom to transfer out; now I’ve semi-seriously invented “Acc-Cent” (accommodation-centered pedagogy) and I don’t even blink at any extended absence, late transfer, language difficulties, or disabilities of any kind.
So what happened? Well, there are four major suspects, and maybe they’re working together. I started coaching girls basketball, I transferred to a school with different demographics, I started teaching “college prep” instead of AP, and I had my first child. But I just spent so much time on memory lane, I’ll have to wait to write about that…

Upcoming post: What happened at Morro Bay High (or, “How I practically destroyed a boys basketball program”)

3 thoughts on “How to Win: A Pedagogy of Competition

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