Redefining “competition” in education.

Posted July 4, 2016 by Joshua neubert

In April 2014, I stepped onto the floor of the Anaheim Convention Center. The building, with a capacity of 7500, was filled to the brim with excited teenagers, parents, and their coaches. This was not to see a concert or any professional sports stars. This was for the Vex Robotics National Championship. With nearly 100,000 students participating in the competition from across the country, Vex is one of the largest educational competitions available to K-12 students. During the event, you could feel the excitement in the air. I had the chance to talk with several of the team coaches and their students. Everyone was not only giddy with excitement at being there, but completely enthralled with the academic concepts at hand. Math, Science, Engineering, all were no longer chores the students were required to learn, but were exciting tools they could use to advance in the competition. For me, as well as all of the Vex participants, it was an eye opening experience.

Outside of these kinds of events, when talking to educators, administrators, and other educational professionals you typically hear one of two trains of thought about using competition in education. Either they are enthusiastically in support of it, or they are absolutely opposed to it. I’ve spent the past 10 years developing and managing educational competitions, first with the X PRIZE Foundation, then as the founding Executive Director of the Conrad Foundation, and now with the Institute of Competition Sciences. In that time I’ve seen the amazing power these programs have to motivate, engage, and inspire our students. Unfortunately, even with all of the empirical evidence pointing to the great benefits provided by educational competitions, less than 20% of formal K-12 students are given the opportunity to participate in these programs. So we have to ask ourselves, why? Why are we afraid of embracing competitions in our educational system?



A recent Mckinsey & Co. report noted that in 2009 more than $375 Million was awarded for new technology developments through 219 large-scale inducement prizes. In 2010, there were 98 competition-based “reality-tv” shows on air. One of these, The X-Factor, reached a record-breaking 19.4 million viewers in the UK for its championship episode. The same year in the US, 4 out of the top 5 viewed TV shows were competition-based. In 2012, American’s spent over $25.4 Billion viewing professional sporting competitions. Competition has been embraced in nearly every aspect of our lives garnering huge impact and influence… every aspect of our lives except education that is.

Competition is an integral part of innovation and is critical to many career and life situations. In 2014, U.S. companies spent $70 Billion on employee training and team-building exercises. Successful teamwork, 21st century skills, and the ability to manage stressful, competitive situations are major success factors in today’s fast-paced technology-driven economy. We know that educational competitions can help students gain these critical real-world skills. So why is it that when competitions have been shown to have such overwhelming capability to not only encourage personal development of the participants, but also to engage communities, rally support for a common cause, and generate heroes for new generations, that we continue to be afraid of embracing them in our educational systems?



The root of our struggle with embracing competition in education may actually have a lot to do with the word “Competition” itself. Many of us automatically identify competition with having a winner and a loser. We think that the only way to use competitions in our education system is in a zero-sum, winner take all scenario. We think that a competition will dissuade the losing students from wanting to continue in their studies. We think that the mere act of competing will cause the students involved to automatically start fighting with each other and break apart relationships. We think of competition as the antithesis of collaboration. What we think couldn’t be further from the truth. The negative associations tied to the term “Competition” produce a limited and biased view of the natural act of competing. It keeps us from realizing the true power and benefits that can be had through these programs for all of our students.

To fully understand how we have unfairly biased our view of competitions in education, we must first separate the noun “competition” from the adjective “competitive.” These terms unfortunately are often confused with each other. In recent years, the term “Competition” has become branded as being synonymous with aggression; however, “Competition” the noun has no inherent emotion. “Competition” simply describes an act or a situation in which two or more participants desire the same resource or outcome. It has no fierce, aggressive, or insidious nature to it. We can define a competition at its most pure, basic form as a process by which the most efficient means to a goal is identified and achieved through comparison with other methodologies.  Instances of this process may result in aggression or what has become known as “competitive” behavior, but the process can also nurture collaboration, community building, and cooperation.

The heart of a competition is about finding the most efficient path to achieving a goal. Over 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has found that repeated competition is the best way to identify this efficiency. Competition is an unavoidable natural process woven into the very nature of life. As humans evolved over the past few millennia our bodies have developed physiological mechanisms to address the competitions we face in nature and in more recent years in our complex societies. It is these adaptations through competition, over successive generations, that have made us the most successful species on the planet.

Our hesitancy to embrace educational competitions is not based on empirical evidence, but on bias, misinformation, and fear. Are there bad competitions? Yes. Can they have negative impacts on students? Yes. However, through careful research, planning, and design, competitions can eliminate or minimize these negative impact while providing vast amounts of positive benefits for our students, and our societies at large. Competitions that follow best-practices in design and operations create what we call a “Net Collaborative Impact.” This means that overall, students will gain more than they lose through their participation. When taking into account all the research and knowledge on competitions that we have today, we can see that the negative impacts can be all but eliminated while maximizing the positive outcomes. This concept of “Net Collaborative Impact” is discussed in more detail in our post, The Importance of Net Collaborative Impact.



For decades, actually since the beginning of our formal education system, we have shied away from competitions. We have let our biases and fear overcome our rational brains. While the rest of the society and nature herself has embraced the structure of competition as the most effective and efficient means of innovation and advancement, we have turned away from this opportunity to motivate, engage, and inspire generations of passionate learners. It is true that when we do not follow best practices in competition design, there can be negative impacts. These have been highlighted in the educational zeitgeist and have bred our fears of competition. However, when we execute competitions based on the decades of research into these powerful phenomena, we can maximize the Net Collaborative Benefit and produce astounding positive results for our students, our schools, and our communities. We know how to design good competitions. We know how to negate the negative impacts and enhance the positive. When taken hand in hand and placed on the scale next to one another, the opportunity for positive benefit vastly outweighs the potential negative impacts.

To all the educators and parents out there, we hope you will work with us to understand the best-practices in competition science and help transform our education systems for the benefit of us all. The Institute of Competition Science has been researching challenge-based-learning for decades and is continuously defining and updating the best-practices that will help maximize Net Collaborative Impact through these programs.

Any educator or student who has participated in Destination Imagination, Future Problem Solvers Program, the Conrad Challenge, Vex Robotics Championship, or one of the other hundreds of educational competitions out there will all tell you the same thing. When done right, competitions have an amazing power to motivate, engage, and inspire. Its time we stopped letting fear rule how we structure our education systems. It is time that we fully embraced the power of competitions and transformed education from being a required chore into being an exciting challenge.