We hear it all the time, students should be collaborating, not competing! The competition vs. collaboration fallacy seems to be as old as our modern education system itself. No one wants their students to be the angry aggressive humans that people accuse competitions of breeding among our youth! It has become commonplace in today's zeitgeist for the public to think that competition and collaboration are antonyms. People automatically think of competitions in the very limited form of the zero-sum-game, where one participant wins what the other one loses. However, with our expanded understanding of competition sciences, we know that this simply is not the case.
Zero-sum games are a very primitive form of competition. They embody competition at its very basic, innate roots, but today's academic competitions go far above and beyond the zero-sum game. Today we know how to design and manage competitions to become what we call, "collaborative-benefit" competitions. What this means is that by specifically designing the structure and requirements of competitions, we can ensure that all participants gain more value from them than the value of the negative impact that not winning the prize imposes on a participant. And, with a little further refinement and attention to detail, competition managers and coaches can even turn the act of not-winning the prize into a powerful learning experience - possibly even more-so than the experience of winning itself. With these modern, well-design competitions, it really is true that everyone wins, despite the fact that we celebrate one winner of the prize itself.
Linguist Dr. David Shields considers competition in terms of metaphor - or how we interpret the terms of the competition. In 2011, Dr. Shields and colleagues defined two ways we commonly interpret competitions (Shield, 2011). We either, (a) interpret it through a metaphor of partnership in which genuine competition takes place to achieve the best possible performance, or (b) we interpret it through a metaphor of war in which "decompetition" occurs, where one participant does everything possible to beat the other.
Luckily for today's academics, educators, and students, we know how to design and manage competitions to ensure interpretation A takes hold. In this modern, "collaborative-benefit" version of competitions, we see that it actually breeds collaboration. The terms are not antonyms at all. When students are encouraged to focus on the challenge, and are encouraged to do their best to tackle the tasks at hand, that is when true learning occurs through competition. It is not so much about "beating the other team," as it is about "being the best we can be."
However, what this also means is that we have to actively work to encourage and enhance these collaborative benefits. Through many academic competitions, students are put into situations where they must collaborate to thrive and win the challenge. In quizbowls, robotics tournaments, debate competitions, and many others, students must learn to develop as a team, and build upon each others strengths in order to be successful.
So the question we face now for competition managers, and coaches is how do we encourage collaboration and the development of strong teams? What does the science say? Luckily, there has been a ton of research on team-building and collaboration. There are many different ideas, techniques, and systems to help strengthen teams. We've boiled them all down into these techniques that we think every academic competition team coach should employ. If you're coaching a team in any of the hundreds of academic competitions that require students to work as part of a team, you'll want to put these techniques into your teaching. Not only will it benefit your students, it will help you have a more cohesive, organized, and successful team in the competition.
1. Keep it Lean - Everyone has a job.
For teams to be the most successful, everyone has to have a well-defined, specific role. Think of your academic competition just like you would a baseball or soccer team. Everyone should know what position they are playing and what they're are responsible for. If you have some students just hanging around on the field with out a specific role, not only are they not learning what they could be, but they will be distracting to your other players. If it looks like your team doesn't have enough roles for all the students who are interested, create a second team. Don't try to just make busy work for those students, they'll see right through it.
2. Be Supportive – Encourage Growth Mindsets.
Ever coach has a different style. Some coaches take a more strict demanding approach to their teams. Others are more easy-going, laid-back types. No matter what approach you take, remember to be supportive of learning opportunities. The science on failure and growth-mindsets is strong - by now most of us will know Dr. Carol Dweck's research on Growth Mindset, but if you aren't familiar with it, check out this video. Failure can be the most powerful learning experience if you encourage your students to learn from it. To do this, make a point to review failures on your teams. Note what went wrong, and ask students to identify how they could fix it. This conscious attention to the failure encourages a growth mindset to help students learn that they can improve and overcome things that they previously failed at. This will create a team that is always learning from each other, rather than having a group of team members who are just afraid to fail at anything.
3. Have skin in the game.
No, you don't have to personally fund your academic competition teams (though many teachers do), but you do need to make a commitment to your team. In fact, everyone involved should make a commitment to the team, and make it in writing. Commitments can resources, money, connections, or simply time. However, research shows that when everyone has a written commitment to the team, and they are reminded of those commitments, the team performs better. So before your competition practices even begin, sit down with your team and write out team commitments. These can be individual or as a group (or both). Make sure they are shared with all members of the team.
4. Be ambitious, but realistic in your goals.
A strong team vision helps everyone know what they’re moving towards, and make sure that they're moving forward toward the same goal. As a coach it is your job to identify ambitious, but achievable goals. So if you have a team of freshman roboticists who have never competed in a Vex Robotics competition before, your goal might not be to win the Vex Global Championship. But your goal could be to perform better than your rival school on the other side of town. Setting achievable but ambitious goals helps students continue to strive towards them, see their progress, and not get discouraged when there are little set-backs along the way.
There are many other tools and techniques to help encourage strong team cohesion and performance. And it is likely that the science behind collaboration and team building is going to change and improve. What we know for sure is that competition - designed, collaborative-benefit competitions - actually breed collaboration and teamwork among its participants. So the fallacy of believing that competition is the opposite of collaboration is simply out-dated and its time we embraced competitions as the powerful learning opportunity that they are, and stopped being afraid that they will produce a generation of angry aggressive young adults. We're smarter than that.
For further reading on the science of team building and team building techniques we recommend this Harvard Business Review article.