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1. It's A Dog's life

Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.

Happy year of the dog.

Here's a question to haul in the New Year. If you were a dog what kind would you be? A strong, silent biter or a runty yapper? A hardworking hound or a lazy mutt? A sleek streak or slobbery pooch. A member of the pack or a lone-wolf. A top-dog or a dogsbody?

Dogs come in all shapes and sizes and humans do too. I guess dogs are man-made from wolves. How about humans? How many of our values and notions of what it is to be human spring from our ancestry and how many spring from society? If we look at different societies find similar features can we conclude that these are determined by ineffable humaness or by probable coincidence. Whichever the case I guess we can say that any feature that is not found in every human society is not inate.

It's been a while but this time around I'd like to focus upon competition. It's time to wake the sleeping dog up.


PS I'm more of a cat myself

2. Down Rover

Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.

Recently there was a post to me in the ETJ activities list. Here it is together with the reply

I use a fair number of competitive games in my kids' classes and have also incorporated some of the principles of cooperation and non- competition you have been talking about on this list and on your website. As others have mentioned, adding an element of competition can spice things up and generate a high level of anticipation and emotional involvement that may or may not improve actual learning. Recently, however, the behavior of several of my students has been prompting me to question the wisdom of using competitive games at all. Two of my students in particular, one 5 years old and one 9, both boys, break down into tears and even throw tantrums at even the slightest indication that they will lose a game. They will resort to lying, cheating, or giving up completely to avoid losing a game. Even simple games such as a Card Track race (commonly used in FO) or the wildly popular (but competitive) Switchit game created by David Lisgo, can prompt strong reactions in these two boys. If they are winning they LOVE playing, but ONLY if they are winning. Just a few weeks ago, the 9-year old sensed that he might come in second. He grabbed his piece, pulled it off the table and burst into tears, "Aaaa, yaruki nakunatta." He spent the entire remainder of the lesson sulking in his chair. I was at a loss as to what to tell him. Despite efforts by myself and classmates to bring him back into the fold, he stubbornly refused. Not exactly a healthy learning experience. Disturbing, in fact. These aren't antisocial kids. When playing cooperative games or doing other activities, songs, pairwork, etc. that involve helping other students or participating as a group, they are fine.

So... my question, or call for advice to you as an educator is, what strategies would you recommend in dealing with examples like the above, AFTER the fact. Besides not introducing the element of competition in the first place, I would be interested in hearing from you and learning how to help these kids get beyond the unhealthy and counterproductive "Winning at all costs" outlook.

Kaj Schwermer

Happy New Year everyone!

Sorry for being late to reply. I've been struggling both with writing my newsletter and with a bad back. I've probably been trying to carry too heavy a load and I suspect I'll end up making this reply do the same...

A lot of interesting points have been made and I'd like to jump to the thrust of Kaj's question which is what to do when competition goes wrong, but first I do wonder if we are all defining competition in the same way. Are co-operation and competition exact opposites? Considering that team sports involve co-operation it's doubtful. In No Contest Alfie Kohn defines competition as MEGA - mutually exclusive goal attainment. This is the definition I usually go with, though sometimes I wonder whether this definition is sufficient. I'd be interested to know how those who advocate competition in the classroom define it.

Incidentally a good summary of Kohn's book can be found here:


An interesting challenge to the definition of MEGA can be found here:


Clearly though, where children react violently there is a problem. I wonder if anyone has had a child react violently to a non-competitive or co-operative game? I've seen a child cheat when playing a co-operative game, but I haven't seen the kind of outbursts Kaj described. What is cheating would make for an interesting thread.

Another point to consider is that most advocates of competition will agree that competitive games should not be played with very young children but can be introduced to older children. Why is that? Is there something poisonous about competition that the very young can not cope with? Perhaps competition is like a alcohol and tobacco - a hard drug.

One thing I am certain of is that forcing children to play competitive games is a form of abuse (by the way, I think forcing them to play co-operative games is also abusive). There should be a choice and given the position we have as teachers it is important that we make that choice explicit and real. Being able to sit out of a game suggested by the teacher is not enough of a choice but much better than being forced to participate, but I think there should be real negotitation. Children could be offered alternatives or games could be chosen randomly or children could take turns choosing games. Where possible consensus should be reached. Consensus may involve a child choosing to watch a game rather than participate but this process is very different from the teacher simply imposing a game on the group. The process is involving children taking into account each other's feelings and I think that is critical.

But what to do when competition goes wrong and children get upset? I like to team teach and team teaching is very useful in such situations as it means one adult can give attention to a hurt child and the other can carry on. Whether carrying on is the best option depends upon the situatation. It is also an ethical decision that reflects the teacher's values.

If a member of a group is hurting should the group ignore that hurt or embrace it as collective hurt? Should the group support the individual who is hurting or leave it for the individual to solve?

I think members of a group should care for each other. I think members of a group should look out for each other. I think members of a group should love one another. If they don't what kind of a group is it?

It may well be at the time that the best course of action is to leave the individual alone. Give the child some space and look at the problem later. But the point I'm making is that a temper tantrum should be seen as the group's problem. The child is not the problem.

Modern society is very competitive. How could it be otherwise when capitalism is the economic model? Competition permeates society and I think it effuses into our thinking unless we are careful. Part of the Second Cooperative Sports and Games Handbook (Pantheon Books, 1982) by Terry Orlick is devoted to games from various different aboriginal cultures. By no means are all of the games co-operative but it is obvious that a different spirit is in operation. For example, in Papua New Guinea children play Siikori which is a game of tag played around and in rivers. When everyone agrees the game is over there is a ceremony in which one child touches the other children in turn saying, "Doko no peromo" - I take it from you. The child then touches a special tree with a sticky sap and in this way cleanses the group of bad feelings. Other games end with different cleansing rituals. There is communal action to deal with animosity and negativity. Could something similar be introduced into the language learning classroom?

If I were in the situation described by Kaj I'd focus on team games without individual player pieces. I'd also make sure I got anonymous feedback after each activity perhaps by getting children to post assessment slips. I'd set up a situation so that in turn each child could choose which game to be played and note which games they chose. I might set up a board game where the children had to escape from a monster, take the roll of the monster and then throw a mock tantrum as the children were winning. I'd mirror horrible behaviour to see what reaction it got. I'd think about using a game like REACH THE TOP which can't be won if an individual tries to win it.


I'd also want to find out the feeling behind the behaviour. I'd ask the child if he felt sad or angry, frightened, embarrassed or ashamed. I'd do this in English and perhaps encourage the other children to do the same. If necessary I'd do some work on feelings so that the children had the vocabulary. I might play some games where children got to act out different feelings. I'd avoid competitive games when doing so.

One thing to consider might be making mood cubes. Children could make these using cut-up cartons and coloured paper. Each side would have a different colour and the colours could represent different moods. For example, tired, sad, happy, excited, bored, hungry. Children could personalise their own cubes by drawing faces. Each child would change the top face of their cube depending upon how they felt. I've not tried this idea which I first read about in a Rose and Maslich book but I think I will. I think mood cubes could help to make a classroom more caring. Children should set cubes before and after each activity.

When I hear people talk about healthier approaches to competition I wonder if they would also advocate healthy approaches to violence. A "better" aim, I think, is to move to a position beyond winning and losing - ie create a world where the concepts are alien.

I find little merit in the argument about using competition to prepare children for life. Prepare children for a competitive life, perhaps. Life offers plenty of opportunities for learning to deal with disappointment and other emotions without employing competition to do so in the classroom. From a language teacher's point of view is there anything that a competitive game can do that a non-competitive game cannot? If there is I'd like to know. One could then assess whether it outweighed the negative aspects of competition.

I think modern society is self-destructive and that competition is one of the negative strands that is twisting us towards destruction. I think this is because modern societies are based on a dominator paradigm rather than a paradigm of love. I said at the beginning that this reply might become too heavy a load. I can hear creaking so I'll stop.

Best wishes,

Chris (Hunt)

3. Burying Caesar

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

If I conquor fear have I been competing with it? If I conquor ambition and desire do I win enlightenment? If I bury Caesar do I need to praise him? He was a good dog, so why not leave it at that?

As I mentioned above one of the complexities with considering competition is defining exactly what it is. With M.E.G.A. Alfie Kohn is focusing on winning by making another lose. But is competition necessarily a zero-sum game? Does there always need to be a winner and a loser? How about rivalry? Isn't this a form of competition? This is the position that Fredrick M. Gordon adopts in his article The Morality of Competition:

Competition is involved when, whatever else one wants, it is part of one's motivation and satisfaction to equal or surpass others.

He cites the example of Shakespeare switching from writing comodies to writing tragedies after discovering that people regarded Marlowe a better playwright because he wrote tragedies and tragedy was rated higher than comedy. I don't think an examination of the chronology of Shakespeare's plays bears this out but this doesn't mean the creative impetus of rivalry can be discounted. Lennon and McCartney perhaps offer a more certain example.

The Morality of Competition makes for interesting reading. I'm not, however, convinced by the suggestion that rivalry is competition though obviously it can lead to it. Surely competition must involve the notion of beating an opponent? Surely it must include the notion of winning?

Fredrick M. Gordon argues that competition takes different forms. He mentions extreme competition, appropriate competition and moderate competition. He writes:

...do we really believe that all forms of competition-for example a war and a children's game of hopscotch-are all psychologically similar?

This seems reasonable. But how about the terms extreme co-operation, appropriate co-operation and moderate co-operation? And the question that is missing from the quote above is, psychologically similar for whom?

When hearing about children who react strongly to competition there is a tendency to blame the child. The child might be told to grow up or not to act like a baby. The child might be told to play fair or be a sport. The child might be told that competition is a fact of life and something to get used to. All too often It's like a torturer complaining to a victim about screaming too loud or torturing the more because the victim's blood has dirtied the torturer's boots.

If young children shouldn't be exposed to competition what does that tell us? If a child is sensitive to competition what does that tell us? If competition can lead to distress and violence what doe that tell us? Given the prevelence of competition in modern society it is probably telling us nothing.

4. What's New (and Old)

In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.

I've been working on a whole new section for the site...and it's not ready, but it almost is. I have some volunteers checking it out. Meanwhile what little that is here is much more old than new.

Christmas is Coming An article from long ago on - competition
Do Women Learn Differently? A Think Tank article from ELT News
Is your Classroom Under Control A co-authored piece about discipline
Pieces of Eight An artilce and game for the TLC Newsletter
Reach The Top A co-operative vocabulary Game

5. Et Tu Toto!?

If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years.

A friend of mine had an interesting experience recently.. His classes had said they wanted to play a board game so he made one featuring a chase. Each player had his or her piece and the objective was to get everyone to the final square. The players were being chased by an evil frog which was controlled by my friend. The frog caused anyone it reached to be sent back to the beginning. A timer set the game length. Players took turns to roll a dice. A player was free to move any marker.

The results were instructive. The youngest age group 4-5 years old were able to co-operate the most easily. They focused on avoiding the frog and could get all their pieces to the finish. The second youngest group 6-7 years old with almost a year of elementary school behind them were still able to co-operate. Players tended to focus on their own piece first but would sometimes move markers belonging to others. The oldest group 8-9 years old could hardly finish the game. My friend even checked at one point that they understood the rules - the oldest children only moved their own piece and even cheered when the frog caught a team-mate.

A parting question. If competitiveness is a largely an acquired phenomenon then who benefits from this? Follow the money.

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.


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Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

(Quotes this issue by Bertrand Russell)

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