Competition is making a comeback, according to June Kronholz. Her new article from the Summer 2010 issue of Ed Next looks at the growth of academic bees and bowls like the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee.
“Americans thrive on competition. It’s why our phones are smarter, our farms are more productive, our athletes run faster, our pop stars are raunchier, and our lives tend to be better—except for the raunchy pop stars—every year,” June writes. “But American schools have been suspicious of competition for generations, and are generally horrified by the idea that success should be accompanied by a reward like a title, a trophy, or a cash prize. Knowledge is its own reward, after all.”
Educators find academic bees especially cringe-worthy. “All those hours spent on one narrow academic focus! All that rote learning! All that stressful competition!”
Competition “creates this idea among students that there are winners and losers, and ‘puts them in their place’ in that universe,” ed school professor Susan Brookhart tells June. But Frederick Morrison, another ed school professor notes that by eliminating many of those measures that show youngsters where they stand in the classroom, “we make kids feel a lot better about themselves, but we’re not challenging them nearly as much as we did three, four, five generations ago.”
The concerns of educators about the harmful effects of competition haven’t slowed the growth in participation in bees, bowls, and academic Olympiads of all stripes. June interviews competitors from various events and finds them to be charming, resourceful, and well-rounded. To see how one spelling bee champion turned out, check out Ed Next’s interview with George Thampy, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2000.