• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 17th April, 2008

Forget those power games – learn more by saving the whales

In the the education systems of the West there has traditionally been a divide between the many who believe that competition drives children toward achievement and the fewer who suspect that "social Darwinism" has much to answer for and that examples of cooperation have more valuable lessons to offer.To take an over-simple example: down in Forestville, California, Ken and Jannice Kolsbun sell a niche market line in non-competitive board games (Save The Whales! is their best-selling product), while the rest of US remains more familiar with Monopoly (available in 37 languages) in which players try to dominate their competitors by buying up land, utilities, and railroads.So does competition really breed success? A recent research analysis suggests it doesn’t. In fact, cooperation appears more likely to spark school achievement and maintain it over time.Cary J. Roseth and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota gathered data from 148 studies involving over 17,000 adolescents from 11 countries. Each study drew comparisons between the effectiveness of cooperative approaches to learning and those that emphasized competitive or individualistic approaches. In the cooperative approaches, students had to work together to achieve goals; in the competitive situations students worked independently and only those who performed the best were rewarded. Individualistic approaches involved independent work and rewarding students based on preset criteria.As well as uncovering the association between higher achievement and cooperation, Roseth and company’s findings suggest that working together helps students to feel good about one another and that these positive relationships in turn lead to further achievement. Although it’s not clear from the studies why cooperation works (perhaps because it fosters a positive student culture, perhaps because student’s basic needs for acceptance are addressed), the researchers claim that the implications are clear. Teachers who structure classroom tasks so that students work together – rather than in opposition to one another – are fostering their students’ achievement.Neither theory nor argument is new, of course, but there is much in current thinking, for example in the field of industrial innovation and service design, about the value of co-operation, [see for example Prevention at the grass roots: the time to sow]. Some of that work is based on the ideas of the US educational philosopher John Dewey, who in turn inspired non-competitive, non-combatant aspects of the progressive educational movement in the UK during the first half of the last century. • Summary of “Promoting Early Adolescents' Achievement and Peer Relationships: The effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures” by Cary J. Roseth, David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson in Psychological Bulletin, March 2008, Vol. 134, No. 2, pp 223–246.

Back to Archives