Is competition good for learning?
I’ve been asking myself this question ever since my first iGEM High-School Jamboree experience two weeks ago. The Jamboree is the culmination of a renowned competition where students of high-school age from all over the world present original synthetic biology projects that they conducted themselves. The best projects win prizes, the most prestigious being the GreenBrick Trophy. This year the Grand Prize went to a private school from South Korea. You can learn about the winning project from the team’s wiki. I have no doubt the South Korean accomplishments deserved recognition, as did all other awardees.
But how important was the competition format in driving the teams’ performance? Would teams still strive for the same high quality even if there were no recognition in the form of prizes? Which is the bigger motivator, making a real difference or winning the award?
Competitiveness is in the human nature and an important driving force behind the society’s progress. We cultivate it because it drives us to push our limits and to improve. And so it makes sense that competition occupies such a prominent role in many human endeavours. But should education be among them? I’d argue that it shouldn’t and here is why.
Firstly, an effective education fosters intrinsic motivation, while winning an award is an extrinsic goal. And if we want students to grow their intrinsic motivation – a worthwhile life-long gain – we should encourage them to pursue projects for their relevance and impact before anything else. If instead students’ main purpose is to win praise and prizes, what gets nourished is their extrinsic motivation – a short-lived and elusive benefit.
Secondly, an effective education enables the acquisition of skills and competencies, whereas competitions showcase already attained competencies to reward mastery and beyond. Awards that carry real meaning and weight – like the Nobel or Pulitzer prize – are those recognizing exceptional work done for the sake of the work itself and driven by an intrinsic sense of purpose and not by a desire to win. Whether it’s in science, technology, or art, the prized work is completed prior to its nomination for any awards. Use of competitions in schools should emulate this model. Educators must try to instil in learners an enduring sense of purpose and the desire to make a real impact without dangling prizes in front of them.
Going back to iGEM High School … I wonder if its approach could change so as to shift the emphasis away from competition and more toward building a solid and long-lasting base of knowledge and skills in synthetic biology among high-schoolers. Maybe the iGEM foundation could give high school teams access to their resources unconditioned by their participation to the competition? And then invite the best projects to compete in the Jamboree? This kind of approach would hold a lot more educational power than what is currently in place. And at the same time the Jamboree would become more selective and homogeneous, which would make it a better and more effective competition.