The idea of “competition” in the classroom still scares some of us in the education industry. We’re told that competition creates winners and losers; that it damages collaboration, and ruins intrinsic motivation. Traditional fears of competition stem from  the common misinterpretation that it is the antithesis of collaboration. However, those educators that have participated in challenge-based-learning programs know differently. For a more detailed look at some of the misconceptions and biases around competitions in education take a look at our post, Redefining Competition in Education. In this post we wanted to highlight some of the ways in which competitions can help transform your classroom (or out of school program).

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it guaranteed that all competitions will have these impacts. As we’ve said in other posts, doing competition right is hard. However, when you follow best-practices in competition design and execution, you’ll see vast changes in your students and the overall feel of your class. You’ll see your students transform from reluctant participants into enthusiastic learners. This is why, at ICS, we have dedicated ourselves to helping educators understand and implement the best practices in challenge-based-learning. Another of our posts highlights a few selected Best-Practices for Educators and Coaches, that may help you execute challenge-based-learning programs with your students.

This post focuses on a few of the ways in which classrooms can be transformed into exciting learning environments through the implementation of well defined competitions. Without further adieu, here are 6 ways competitions can transform your classroom!


Africa-Robotics Competition

1. Increased Content Engagement.

We’ve all seen students who just don’t want to be there. Students who seem like they couldn’t care less about what you’re saying. The students who daydream, sleep, or even actively cause trouble just because they aren’t engaged with the content you’re trying to teach them. There are hundreds, if not thousands of ways we’re told to help increase student engagement. Competition impacts all students differently, but it has been shown that when students are given challenges that pull on their sense of purpose, they become more motivated and engaged to perform the tasks. Some students thrive simply because they’re given a competition and they want to be the best. Other students thrive because there is a challenge that they want to overcome. Still others thrive because the competition provides a real-world scenario in which they can base their learning. Not every student is the same, and not every challenge is the same. However, we believe, there is a challenge for every student. When following best practices in competition science, you will find that there are always ways to execute challenge-based-learning to help motivate, engage, and inspire your students.


Student Teamwork

2. Improved Social and Emotional Learning.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a part of the broader set of “affective dimensions” of learning that are so critical to every student’s motivation and engagement in the classroom. We want students to be well versed in social skills and capable of handling the complex emotions that will be associated with their future college and career opportunities. Educational competitions provide a safe platform upon which teachers can guide students through situations where social and emotional skills will be required. By participating in these programs, students begin to get a sense of some of the scenarios they may be placed in when they enter the workforce. These types of situations are not easily executed in a traditional lecture and test methodology. The competition-based environment puts students under pressure, and forces them to use social skills to work out differences among their own team, as well as interacting with others, while at the same time managing the complex emotions brought out through the challenge. Companies spend more than $70 Billion dollars a year on team building exercises. If we can help students go into their careers with a leg up on the social and emotional skills needed in their careers, it could produce a much needed benefit to our economy.



3. Enhanced Perception of Academic Heroes.

In our previous posts we’ve explored the need for academic heroes. Motivating students is not always easy; however, one technique that demonstrates great promise is in building up new academic heroes. This in itself is a daunting task, but competitions provide a solid foundation upon which we can do it. Here we can take some guidance from fields such as athletics, where heroes are regularly created through their performance in competitions. By including your students in educational competitions, you can draw relationships to their peers or alumni who do well in those programs, and begin to form a new set of academic heroes for your students. The motivational impact of this can be taken far in the classroom to keep your students engaged and excited about your content when the tasks are connected to what is needed to follow in the footsteps of these heroes.


FPSPI Presentation

4. Incorporation of 21st Century Skills.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has defined a great set of skills that are important for students to have when entering their college and career paths. However, it is not always easy to see how to incorporate these skills directly into the classroom. When participating educational competitions, 21st century skills are often built directly into the structure of the programs. Students are provided safe environment in which they can learn the breadth of 21st century skills and practice them in real-world situations.



5. Heightened Real-world connections.

One challenge that is prevalent throughout education is in drawing real-world connections to the content. Daniel Ariely, a Behavioral Economist at Duke University, demonstrated in one of his experiments that by distancing ourselves from direct connections of value (e.g. cash) we limit our concrete understanding of the impact of the transaction. This is why we feel better paying with credit cards than we do with cash, and why casinos use chips instead of actual money. The associative connection to the actual impact of losing the money is more distanced and not as harsh in our brains. The same effect happens in education. The further distanced students are from the real-world impact of the content you’re teaching them, the harder it is for them to associate that content with real situations. Competitions help provide situations that are closer to the real-world environment that they will be faced with in their careers. They provide a way to help your students envision the direct impacts of the content you are teaching on their possible future jobs and opportunities. This draws them closer to the associations they need to internalize the content, just like using cash brings us closer to the actual impact of the transaction.


As always, we would love to hear your thoughts or experiences with how challenge-based-learning has impacted your classroom. Please share your ideas with us so we can continue to improve upon and share what we know works and what doesn’t.