Academic Competitiveness

Here’s an interesting question:

“What’s your experience with academic competitiveness?”

The person who asked it – Brenna Gee, who writes a favourite blog of ours called space2live – has recently posted a piece called I’d Rather Not Compete With You: For Introverts or Anyone Who Prefers Excellence Over Dominance.

Be my friend, lover or family member but please don’t be my competitor. I will run from you if I feel you are in any way interested in one-upping me. This is the ultimate turn off for me. I will not relax in your presence. I understand that competition is invigorating and natural for many but for me it is a challenge that invites critical and judgemental thinking. It squeezes out being and focuses on doing. Intellectually it emphasizes facts and downplays questions and wonder.

I agree with this 100%.

Wikipedia has this to say about competition in education:

Countries such as England and Singapore have special education programmes which cater for specialist students, prompting charges of academic elitism. Upon receipt of their academic results, students tend to compare their grades to see who is better. In severe cases, the pressure to perform in some countries is so high that it can result in stigmatization of intellectually deficient students, or even suicide as a consequence of failing the exams; Japan being a prime example. This has resulted in critical re-evaluation of examinations as a whole by educationalists. Critics of competition (as opposed to excellence) as a motivating factor in education systems, such as Alfie Kohn, assert that competition actually has a net negative influence on the achievement levels of students, and that it “turns all of us into losers” (Kohn 1986). Economist Richard Layard has commented on the harmful effects, stating “people feel that they are under a great deal of pressure. They feel that their main objective in life is to do better than other people. That is certainly what young people are being taught in school every day. And it’s not a good basis for a society.”

Returning to Brenna’s question, my earliest memory and experience of education and learning as some kind of competition, or a means of ranking someone, is from around the age of 10, which is the penultimate year of Primary school in Britain. In Mr White’s class we were set weekly tests of mental arithmetic and spelling. Depending on how well we did in the tests we then sat in particular places in the classroom.

Our classroom was set out in the traditional fashion with rows of desks facing a large blackboard. The classroom had very large windows all along one wall, and the teacher’s desk was located in the top corner where the window wall met the blackboard wall. Those who did best in the tests sat, two by two, next to the teacher’s desk and then back alongside the windows. Those who did worst in the tests sat in the darkest part of the classroom and the furthest away from the teacher’s desk – a virtual banishment.

I think even the stupidest of us could see the injustice and the unnecessary awfulness of all this. Did I have an ambition to sit next to the teacher’s desk? No. What was the point of that? Did I want to sit as far away from the teacher’s desk as possible? No. I didn’t dislike the teacher as a human being. He was OK. But who wants the humiliation of being seen as the dunce, or one of the dunces, of the class? According to this system, even if all of us had been incredibly bright kids, someone would have been the worst.

I had no way of not being the worst. I didn’t know how to make my memory work better, and I didn’t know how to make my brain work faster. I still don’t. I tend to work slowly, methodically and thoroughly. I tend to need relaxation, calmness and freedom from stress in order for my memory and my brain to be at their best. I don’t excel in timed tests and examinations. I also lack the motivation to spend hours ‘revising’ for tests and exams – committing to memory sheaves of ‘facts’ that I know I’ll never need to remember for the rest of my life. I used to know certain facts that helped me pass examinations in maths (quadratic equations? logarithms? trigonometry?), chemistry, economics, history, and so on, which I probably ceased to remember the day after the examinations. For some things I have a retentive memory, and for other things I don’t. I tend to remember what’s important to me, and I tend to be skilful in doing things that have importance and meaning for me. I assume most people are pretty similar.

So how did I do in the arithmetic and spelling tests? Not bad. The tests were essentially tests of memory – number facts (plus calculation skills using those number facts) and  spellings. There were a handful of girls who seemed more mature, more attentive, more diligent and more able than the rest of us, and they always sat at the ‘top’ of the class. There were certain boys who were deemed to be ‘thick’ and often off-task and ‘daydreaming’, and they occupied the dreaded darker region of the classroom. Where are they all now?, I sometimes wonder. What did these experiences do to them, and how did they affect the rest of their lives?

One of the interesting aspects of this whole scenario is that if you struggled with mental arithmetic, then no matter how good you were at spelling (and writing), you could never be at the top of the class. Likewise, you could be a brilliant arithmetician, but if you had a poor memory for words and their spellings, and you were possibly what’s now called ‘dyslexic’, then you couldn’t consider yourself one of the more able in the class. As for those who struggled with both arithmetic and spelling, you were plainly hopeless and a complete failure in everything that’s really important in life and in education.

It wouldn’t make any difference if you happened to be a brilliant artist, a gifted actor, a great athlete, a talented musician, a superb verbal communicator or a creative and imaginative designer or entrepreneur – you were still basically an idiot. This is how things worked in Dickens’ time; it was how things worked in my own schooldays, and by jove it’s how our current Secretary of State for Education sees things. We still measure how well-educated someone is at the age of 11 by making them sit timed tests in English and Mathematics, and this is also how we measure the success or failure of our schools – no matter what their pupil intake, their social environment and parental expectations, their funding for books, computers and other resources, their concern for other aspects of learning, or their difficulties with recruiting the best teachers.*

Then, as now, there was no real concern for whether children learned how to learn, whether they enjoyed learning for its own sake, whether they were capable of being independent, self-motivated learners with particular learning agendas of their own, and so on. And there was certainly no concept that to be socially intelligent, personally aware, spiritually intelligent, emotionally literate, enthusiastic about learning and creative in a number of ways, is far more important than how well someone does in timed tests and examinations at a particular age.

Incidentally, I noticed in the news this week a report of more and more parents employing private tutors to work with very young children both before and after school – not because they’re unhappy with the school or because they think the school is failing in some way – simply because they want their child to be regarded as the most able in his or her class. Obviously these are not the financially-challenged parents who are employing these tutors.

I could now go on to write about the competitive aspects of secondary education at the school I attended – the classes being labelled 1A to 1F according the 11+ results obtained and how academically able you were deemed to be at the age of 11; the fact that classes 1A and 1B studied French and Latin whereas class 1C studied French and German, and below that only French was offered. (So you did well in a test of logic and verbal reasoning at the age of 11 and this determined whether you’d be capable of studying Latin or German!)  I could describe the Commendations and the Form Prizes and the various ways in which you were supposed to be rewarded for effort and motivated to work even harder. In essence, though, it’s just a continuation of a system designed to sort out the sheep from the goats and attach labels to children and young people, from primary school to university. It’s archaic, and its unjust.

Just imagine how much of an outrage there would be if we suddenly decided that the places at the ‘best’ universities would no longer be awarded on the basis of results in timed tests and examinations but on the basis of someone’s track record for independent, self-motivated learning, original thinking, and an ability to carry out collaborative research and creative project work. It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but aren’t these the skills, attitudes and abilities that are most valued in the workplace, and also the most valuable for someone starting their own business?

Who gains from the current competitive system? Especially like the one that we seem to be returning to in England where only a certain number of students will be allowed to gain the highest grades? Mainly, competitive parents who often invest a lot of time and money in sending their children to the most academically successful schools. [Although the children who do least well in those schools may well end up with lifelong psychological and emotional problems. Come to think of it, so do many of the successful ones.]

The system also seems to operate for the benefit of the universities themselves, in terms of producing little scholars who know how to play the academic game – find and read  information, summarise it, re-work it, re-present it in the form of an essay or a thesis that will please the tutor. No wonder people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs dropped out of university in order to get on with doing something more interesting, more challenging and more worthwhile.

Take a look at this article by the highly respected Will Hutton in today’s Observer for some more thoughts on today’s education scene in England:

*The creation of the so-called EBacc is also a manifestation of the idea that only those who do well in ‘traditional’ ‘academic’ subjects are truly educated and worthwhile human beings.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Academic Competitiveness

  1. Plish says:

    It’s amazing how competitivenss sneaks in without even realizing it. One time in Engineering School while co-studying with a friend in the library (we helped each other learn), he said, “That’s what I like about what we do. There’s no competitivenss, we just try and do our best!” I smiled and said, “Yeah, totally!” But at that moment, there was a twinge in my conscience because there were times when I DID want a better grade on an exam. The competitive nature of engineering programs is well known, and it seeped into and played in my psyche even without my realizing it.

    Thanks for the great post!


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thanks for a great comment! The idea of ‘co-studying’ rather than just ‘studying’ is one that we’re always trying to stress. Most of what we accomplish we accomplish better and faster and more enjoyably when we work with others who share our interests and enthusiasms, and whose company we relish. There’s also far less fear of failure when we work as part of a team. Of course there are times when we need to just read, write and delve into cyberspace on our own, but that has to be inspired by a sense of curiosity and a sense of doing something worthwhile in itself, and not because we’re trying to feed our egos by gaining some sort of competitive advantage over others.


  2. Wow, I really related to this post… all of it! I am an extreme introvert, INFJ, and school was just not my way of learning. I thought I was less intelligent than the fast thinking kids who could memorize so much. It wasn’t until I was out of school that I found my natural ability to learn… what a waste of time school turned out to be! I have found that the subject I hold the highest value of is self awareness. This is hardly mentioned in school, from my experience, which is unfortunate.
    What I have realized through self awareness is that; all is as relevant. This leads to knowing what unconditional love feels like. There is no information that I can find to be as valuable.


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thanks Travis. That’s a very good point about self-awareness, which is what 3Di calls “Personal Intelligence”. This is equal to and complementary to “Social Intelligence” (otherwise known as empathy) on our three-dimensional model of human intelligences. Traditional education causes us to think about and know about everything around us, but pays no attention to the need to look within in order to truly know ourselves. “Intellect” is but one of our six intelligences, and is based on facts and figures and processing information, but Personal Intelligence is developed through insight, meditation, reflection, and attention to our deepest feelings, thoughts and desires. Since these are supposedly subjective and can’t be measured, quantified and tested then our education systems ascribe them no value and no status. This is unbelievably foolish as it results in millions of people who not only don’t really know themselves – they don’t understand the need to develop self-awareness either. It’s shocking that we have such a long way to go to re-think how we educate young people and change the way we think about intelligences.


  3. Karen Wan says:

    I agree that focusing on academic competitiveness instead of excellence leads too many of us to believe that is the way it is has to be our whole life. To me being stuck in a competitive mentality is a rather miserable way to live. I would also say it’s often a shock for students who excel in school to realize that in the world outside of academia that collaboration and the ability to work with others is valued more than those test scores. Thanks for reminding me that there is another way! 🙂 Karen


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thank you, Karen. Working with others to create something worthwhile; empathising and assisting; enjoying collegiality; supporting those in need and the less able – it’s a belief in the wellbeing of the group rather than a lone-wolf winner-take-all mentality. Overall I guess it’s down to a belief in certain ideals to do with supporting the less able members of society and not allowing anyone to be abandoned or left behind. Can we be free spirits who are also social beings? Of course!


  4. brennagee says:

    “I tend to work slowly, methodically and thoroughly. I tend to need relaxation, calmness and freedom from stress in order for my memory and my brain to be at their best.”
    Me too.:)
    I always did well in school because I was a master at memorizing and regurgitating information pertinent to the next test. I also forgot most of the material after the exams. My hands-on learning was very limited. I could compete academically because I spent lots of time studying and preparing for tests. Despite my good grades, I never felt especially smart or “top of the heap” in the real world (post education). What I do know now comes from experience and mentor relationships. Both have taught me far more than tests ever did.
    I could compete but I’d rather learn and share.


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thanks Brenda – for all your sharing, for inspiring others and for supporting our efforts to think differently about the purposes of education and learning. Your thoughts always nourish and your comments are always much appreciated.


Please leave a comment - and tell others about 3Di!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s