How to Balance Competitive and Collaborative Learning

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We’ve heard a lot about collaborative learning in recent years, but almost at the expense of another, equally important concept: competition. Don’t get me wrong—I believe that today’s students should be service-oriented, cooperative, intellectually humble, and less individualistic in their educational pursuits. But we’ve been speaking as though collaboration and competition are mutually exclusive, and they’re not.

Some of you will say that competition harms learning. In fact, Alfie Kohn has been saying it for years: “One after another, researchers across the country have concluded that children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Why? First, competition often makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Second, competition doesn’t permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can’t learn from one another. Finally, trying to be Number One distracts them from what they’re supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or a trophy), she becomes less interested in what she’s doing. The result: performance declines.”

But competition isn’t going anywhere; it’s a fundamental part of human nature. The way we teach our students to view and respond to competition, though, needs to change. We need to present collaboration, for example, as a competitive advantage. Teachers need to start rewarding students for empathy and good listening skills, not just homework completion. Admissions teams need to start looking for evidence of service learning, not just G.P.A. And the students themselves need to start valuing an entirely new set of principles and skills.

Competitive learning not only means doing everything you can to succeed individually, but also being receptive to the needs of society. Ten years ago, success would have meant earning your degree, knowing how to ace an interview, and having a great business idea. Now it may mean pursuing an alternative education path, knowing how develop soft skills and work well with others, and considering the value of social entrepreneurship. Here are our top ten strategies for becoming a competitive learner today’s world:

1. Use innovation, not knowledge, as a competitive advantage.

“Today knowledge is ubiquitous, constantly changing, growing exponentially,” says Tony Wagner in his book Creating Innovators. “Today knowledge is free. It’s like air, it’s like water. It’s become a commodity. There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you. The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.”

Students who realise this quickly will have a significant advantage over their peers when it comes to personal, educational, and professional pursuits.

2. Be able to solve problems collaboratively.

We’ve talked a lot in recent years about how important it is for students to think critically and be able to solve problems. But now the challenge is to teach students to do these things not just for themselves, but for each other. Companies like Google and Apple want to hire candidates who can work in teams, which means not just pitching your own ideas but also listening, adapting, and empathising with others. Laszlo Bock, hiring manager at Google, says solving problems collaboratively starts with something called “intellectual humility”: you have a sense of responsibility to try and solve any problem, but you also have the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.

“What we care about [at Google] is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

3. Understand how to build your presence.

Making yourself known in the world today means something very different than it did even a few years ago. Nearly every company and organisation around the globe has a digital presence of some kind. Most individuals use professional platforms like LinkedIn, Behance, and AboutMe to showcase their skills to potential employers. If you’re still a student, it’s not too early to start building your presence with a digital learning portfolio or similar curation tool. Doing so will not only help you stand out from the crowd; it will also help you reflect on and interpret your own learning journey.

4. Cultivate a multi-disciplinary outlook.

Way back in 1916, Alfred North Whitehead was telling educators to “eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.” Later, Harland Cleveland wrote: “It is a well-known scandal that our whole educational system is geared more to categorising and analysing patches of knowledge than to threading them together.” John Goodlad, after a massive, multi-year study of American high schools culminating in a 1984 McGraw-Hill book titled, A Place Called School, wrote, “The division into subjects and periods encourages a segmented rather than an integrated view of knowledge. Consequently, what students are asked to relate to in schooling becomes increasingly artificial, cut off from the human experiences subject matter is supposed to reflect.”

As Valerie Strauss wrote for The Washington Post last year: “The systemic nature of reality, the seamless way the brain perceives it, the organising process that aids memory, the relating process that creates new knowledge, the conceptual networking that yields fresh insights, the meshing of two seemingly unrelated ideas that underlies creativity—all rely on holistic, systemically integrated and related thought. And it’s not being taught.”

If teachers won’t change it, students can. Learners who deliberately cultivate a multi-disciplinary outlook in their studies will go far in our systemically integrated society.

5. Be intrinsically motivated.

We bring this one up a lot, but it’s essential. And contrary to what Google may have you think, it’s becoming harder, not easier, to be a skilled learner. Finding the right answer may be easier if you’ve got your smart phone on hand, but asking the right questions is nearly impossible unless you’ve got a real interest in the topic at hand. Students who help keep curiosity and wonder alive in an increasingly automated and desensitising world will reap the most benefits, both personally and professionally.

6. Don’t be afraid to fail.

Learning is failing. We learn from our mistakes; we grow by taking risks. But that’s not the way it seems when we expect students to regurgitate the “right” answers onto a test sheet all year. By doing this, we’re training students to make only safe choices in life, thereby remaining indistinguishable from one another as academics, job candidates, and even individuals. This year’s star players will truly understand the value of failure and know how to use it to their advantage.

7. Believe in a culture of service.

The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse defines service learning as “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” Research indicates that service-learning programs contribute to higher student achievement and reduce achievement gaps. But most importantly, service learning is good for society as a whole. Students who approach learning and education as an opportunity to create good in the world–and not just a journey of personal gain–will find it easier to stand out from their peers and finding jobs upon graduation.

8. Actively improve your memory.

Although we’re no longer in a “knowledge economy,” as Wagner calls it, retaining what we learn is just as important, if not more important, than ever. A thousand years ago, Roman senators were using elaborate memorisation strategies to aid their speechmaking. Today, we expect students to remember content without giving them the tools and tricks to do so. Students who are willing to improve their working memory capacities—independently, through research and practise—will gain a significant edge over their peers.

9. Be committed to digital literacy.

Today’s students may already be the most tech savvy individuals in history, but screen time doesn’t always translate to digital literacy. Competitive learners need to know not only the basics (coding, blogging, Tweeting) but also keep up-to-date with the rapidly changing landscape of communication technologies. Every student today should be a digital communications hobbyist. It’s no longer enough to master interview skills and e-mail etiquette. People communicate through a diverse array of media now, and the most literate navigators will reap the most benefits.

10. Record your own learning.

Competitive learners know the value of curation and reflection in today’s world. Recording your own learning, in a portfolio or through some other organisational tool, is one of the most advantageous tools at the disposal of today’s students.

According to the University of Cincinnatti online, “Reflection provides an opportunity to analyse our thoughts, behaviours, and actions to gain a better understanding of ourselves and the world. We can isolate instances in which we were successful or we need to improve and learn from these experiences. Reflection also allows us to make connections between academic classes, experiences, and other aspects of our lives.

“On a very practical level, reflection helps us synthesise and articulate our learning. This is especially important when interviewing and writing applications for graduate school, jobs, internships, or nationally competitive awards/scholarships.”

What strategies have you found to balance competitive and collaborative learning in your own educational journey? Join the discussion below.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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