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Christmas - The Cutting Edge

Note: This article was written for Snakes and Ladders and appreared in teh Winter 2002 edition. The version below is the pre-edited version. If you are interested in what actually got printed then visit here and look for The Cutting Edge . There are various differences apart from the title. Parts of both have appeared elsewhere.

Christmas is coming… Give yourself one minute to list all the adjectives you can think of that go with Christmas.

Here are a few: peaceful, joyful, warm, loving, competitive.


The idea ‘Competitive Christmas' doesn't sound quite right, does it? Christmas is a time for giving and sharing. Christmas is love.

Now think about the idea ‘competitive game'. Imagine your feelings about this idea and the notion of competitive Christmas are the same. Can you do it?

When I hear that teachers are using competitive games to teach English. It saddens me. When I hear that they are using competitive games with young children it angers me. At Christmas time we talk about peace and understanding. But what do we do for the rest of the year? Take a look around. The World is overflowing with weapons. People are starving, people are dying right now. Competition is one of the roots of this suffering. When we teach using competitive frameworks we are promoting suffering.


I've put the cart before the horse – or rather the sleigh before the reindeer. Here I am going on about competition and I haven't even defined what I mean by it. I'd better start again.

This article is about competition and how to avoid it when teaching English. I'll also look at why. But before I start I'll also say that I used to be a strong Chess player. And chess is a very competitive game. I'm also a game designer. So please, listen…

The most succinct definition of competition is provided by Alfie Kohn in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition . Here he introduces the acronym MEGA:

Mutually Exclusive Goal Attainment

We may or may not have the same goals. Competition occurs when I can only achieve my goal at the expensive of yours. In other words if I win, you loose. It follows from this that competition involves scarcity. When we create a prize (such as first place) what we are actually doing is creating artificial scarcity. This is actually incredibly negative from an educational point of view. We are effectively training children to accept that scarcity is reality. Moreover with all the focus on winners and losers we are training children to accept that it is natural for some of us to win and have more resources and for some of us to lose and have less or no resources. We are promoting a negative model of the World. It's just a model.

Nobody needs to starve to death. There is enough food to feed everyone in the world.

If this were a presentation rather than an article I guess someone would be telling me that scarcity does exist. Resources are finite. This is of course, true. I can't have my Christmas cake and eat it, can I? (Sometimes I think English idioms are really stupid!). But often it is our attitude to those resources that is more important.

Consider two children arguing over the possession of a toy. This sometimes happens to me when I am teaching two-year-olds. Even when there are enough toys for everyone dispute and conflict can occur. Perhaps suddenly both of them want the blue toy. They've created a situation of scarcity. There are enough toys but not enough blue toys. What can the teacher do? The children are two young to Junken (and Junken is a competitive structure, anyway). The teacher could simply confiscate the toy. All this does is prove that might creates right and reinforces the notion that scarcity exists. An alternative solution is to get the children to take turns. I do this by using a timer. I usually set it for around 20 seconds so the turns are ridiculously frequent. The focus is shifted to the timer and the conflict is often resolved.

Very young children brought up in a capitalist culture often have difficulty sharing. Possession is too important. This is not the case in ‘primitive' societies (read Terry Orlicks' Co-operative Sports and Games Handbook ). The point I want to emphasis is that all too often we become trapped inside the structures that we use and fail to use our imagination. And competition is so ingrained it sometimes takes a leap of love to shift away from it.

Competition is all around us, so if for no other reason it's a good idea to introduce non-competitive games. Choice can only exist when people are aware of the alternatives. With this article I'm making you aware that you have a choice. Once you are aware, it will be up to you to choose – so by reading this you are receiving a gift. You are receiving the gift of responsibility.

But I have other reasons for using non-competitive games and activities. I have found that for teaching English, they work better than competitive ones. When children participate in a competitive game they focus on winning. The material, the English being used becomes irrelevant. Competitive games usually favour the more able students so they often get the most practise. This promotes ability gaps. Moreover once children feel they have no chance to win a game they tend to give up. Once they give up their interest plummets, and without interest they learn nothing. Well, not quite nothing. If competition is pushed too hard they learn that they are a loser and they drop out altogether. English is not a scarcity. Why make it so? There's enough of it for everyone.

Of course, it's possible to manipulate a game so that the outcome is left in doubt until near the end. David Paul calls this ‘creative cheating' but as a games purist I always feel uncomfortable about this. Far better to change the structure of the game so that no cheating is necessary.

It takes practise.

Using non-competitive structures can be challenging at first. Now I can usually find a way to change a competitive game into a non-competitive one relatively quickly (though not all games are worth changing). When I first started, over five years ago, I used to find it difficult to create non-competitive games. A shift in thinking is required and the more competitive we are the more difficult it is. A good way to start is by watering-down the competition within the games you play. Here are some ways:

  1. Avoid games involving elimination
  2. Use team games rather than individual games.
  3. Where possible avoid keeping score.
  4. Use a scoring system that involves randomness. For example, in quizzes give cards valued from 0-6 (with lots of zeros) for correct answers. These can be kept face down and only totalled at the end. Thus students cannot be certain who the winner is until the end of the game.
  5. Make the game content humorous or silly.
  6. Use games which require a variety of skills. In this way you can even out the chances of who wins.
  7. Concentrate on the process rather than the result. Avoid making an issue out of winning and losing.
  8. Participate in the game and lose, then no student is last.
  9. Mix in as many non-competitive games and co-operative games as possible: find out which your students prefer!

There are two alternatives to competitive games, non-competitive games and co-operative games. Games without artificial scarcity are non-competitive. Games that ‘everybody wins' are non-competitive. But to be truly co-operative a game requires contribution from all the players to achieve a shared target. You may feel that I'm splitting hairs – but the differences are real. Another article, another time.

The important point to realise is that non-competitive and co-operative games can still be challenging, though often they needn't be. This is because they are usually fun in their own right. This is a good way to assess a game. If a game or activity requires winners and losers in order to make it interesting then that is the sign of a poor activity. Use a different one.

By way of illustration I'll now focus on a game I came across recently. I'll present the original competitive game and then show how to make it non-competitive and finally co-operative.

The Hammer Game – Competitive Version

In the version described on the Genki English homepage, two teams line up facing each other. The teacher stands between them wielding a giant inflatable hammer. The heads of each line battle it out, taking it in turns to say any English word. Repetition or hesitation is greeted by tap on the head from the hammer and that child is out and sits down. The winner moves to the end of his or her line and a new pair have a turn. The team with the last surviving member wins.

The Hammer Game – Non-competitive Version

The students stand in a circle. The teacher approaches one student. If the student says a word the teacher hits himself and moves to the next student. If a student repeats a word or a hesitates, the teacher moves to hit the student, but if anyone says “Don't!” the teacher hits nobody. Continue for a set amount of time, keeping a tally of the words spoken if desired. The total words spoken can be used as a target for the group to beat next time.

The Hammer Game – Co-operative Version

Use the non-competitive version except that now when a student says a word the student sits down. The teacher only moves to those students standing up. Whenever the teacher hits a student or someone says “Don't” one person sitting down must stand up. Wait until this happens. If two or more people stand up at the same time they all get to stay standing so players must observe each other carefully or work out some system. Students sitting down may whisper words to those standing, but if the teacher hears the students concerned must stand up again. Can all the students get to sit down within the time limit?

I will admit that the first time I encountered this forfeit game I was shocked. Head hitting isn't exactly friendly and would be sacrilegious in Thailand. Please think about the differences in the different versions. Notice how I created a situation that lampoons and punishes false authority.

Christmas is coming. A new year is upon us. We can choose paths away from models of scarcity and conflict. We have that choice. We have that gift to give. Let's give it.

References and resources:

Deacove, J (1987) Co-op Parlour Games . Family Pastimes. Family Pastimes is a company specialising in co-operative games. They have over 40 titles. Write for a free catalogue to Family Pastimes, RR4 Perth, Ontario, Canada, K7H 3C6 or visit their web page: http://www.familypastimes.com

Genki English Online at http:/.genkienglish.net Lots of energy and ideas but competitive…

Kohn, A. (1992) No Contest: the case against competition . Houghton Mifflin, Boston. The text for those wishing to critically examine the effects of competition.

Kagan, S. (1992) Cooperative Learning Kagan , San Clemente. Web page http://www.kaganonline.com.

Orlick, T. (1982) The second Co-operative Sports and Games Handbook . Pantheon. Parachute games are great!

Sobel, J. (1983), Everybody Wins: 393 non-competitive games for young children . New York: Walker and Company. The games need adapting for language classroom use.

Wise Hat, an expanding collection of activities, games and CDs. Online at: http://www.wisehat.com

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