Competition as a driving principle of life seems to have become all-pervasive, and it appears to extend into every nook and cranny of social activity: sports, music, dance (and all the performing arts), business, research, academia in general. Inevitably, in education too its presence is universally felt. There is an implicit belief in the idea that in a competitive atmosphere work improves in quality, while complacence and lethargy reduce; we are, in short, 'kept on our toes'. One often hears the phrase 'healthy competition' in this connection. Students everywhere are exhorted to compete, to push ahead, and to be one up on their fellows. What is the validity of so widespread a faith in competition? What long-term consequences accrue from it for the individual? Are there alternative models available for education? These are some questions thatwe take up in this article. We shall show that the proposition that competition encourages quality and creativity cannot quite be upheld.
Competition as an agent for motivation: the realities
It is not hard to see that the chief purpose of a competitive style of functioning in an educational setting is to enhance motivation and quality, the principle being that in a spirit of 'healthy rivalry and competition' each actor in the drama is spurred to greater heights. There is an implicit belief that such rivalry enhances quality. While this may be so, and in settings such as athletics it is clearly so, a fuller picture certainly needs to be sketched. Let us examine what really does happen. In a competitive framework, it is one's peers who set the standard; one observes them performing at a certain level of efficiency and quality, and aspires towards achieving such levels. In such a mode of functioning, the standards we set for ourselves are clearly quite limited, for our vision extends only to what we see immediately around us. An example may help us see how this happens. In a school a student may aspire, through incentive and/or intrinsic competitive urges, to become the best tennis player in the school, and be suitably rewarded for this once the goal is achieved. If successful, the student may well complete his schooling with the feeling that he is a great tennis player. But his standards have been set by his peers. The standard of the school may in fact be quite low, and being the best in school is no guarantee that one is any good! We have no doubt all met the person who was captain of his school cricket team and highly regarded for his batting abilities by everyone in the school, but who was not able to get a position even as an extra in his college team. Competition, inevitably, operates on a limited scale; one competes against one's peers, and the standards set bysuch means are inevitably limited.
The example given above was from the world of cricket, but it can happen just as easily in areas such as music, drama, art, and academics. The discovery, when one is in college, that being the best in one's school does not mean much, and in fact has rather limited significance, can prove to be a shattering experience for young adults. This actually does happen quite routinely in many of our premier educational institutes. Some institutes respond by appointing full-time counsellors to deal with cases of loss of self- image, loss of motivation, insecurity and breakdown. Suicides are not unknown in highly competitive academic settings, so theissue is clearly a serious one.
Having seen the implications of competition on self-image, we turn to its implications on motivation. How does a teacher go about motivating students? A common strategy is to announce a reward. Learning then becomes goal-oriented, pushed by external motivators. The reward may be good grades, or praise from the teacher or parent, or public recognition in the form of certificates and medals, or the gift of a book or bar of chocolate. Or it may come in a negative form, as a disincentive for poor performance: scorn, disapproval from the parent or teacher, detention, and so on. But educators are beginning to realise that such motivators may in fact be a hindrance to real learning. This is particularly so when the task at hand itself has intrinsic value. In general one can say that rewards are essentially tools for manipulating behaviour - and the student knows this perfectly well! Many commonly used extrinsic motivators (good grades, praise) are not merely ineffective but in fact counterproductive to creativity and to quality of work; and (most importantly) to commitment to good values. Admittedly, not everyone agrees with this view; some feel that a vital role played by extrinsic motivators is to make students aware of the powerful and positive social reinforcement given to those who work hard. While this cannot be denied, surely the real aim of education is, or should be, to 'draw out' a student's internal motivation. (The words 'draw out' derive from the etymological origin of the word 'education' - the Latin word educare.) Surely the real aim of education should be to promote a joy of learning - lifelong. What is the driving force behind internal motivation? It is the desire for mastery; the desire for a sense of accomplishment; the desire for a sense of confidence in one's abilities; the desire for a sense of ownership about what one has accomplished. It seems reasonable to expect that an essential part of teaching should be to help students find their own reasons to learn. They will find such reasons only in supportive environments.
It may be argued that the human competitive instinct is itself intrinsic in nature; that it lies deep within, no doubt deriving from our evolutionary past, and is inextricably connected with the aggressive urge. As such, it shapes - inevitably - the educational environment we create for ourselves. To exploit these urges to promote learning seems a tragic waste of human creativity and resource, because extrinsic motivators all too easily smother internal motivation. One may learn a subject or skill purely because of the pleasure offered by its social and competitive aspects. Such learning environments feed on our inner aggressive urges, and in turn help sustain them. It is only the caring and thoughtful teacher who can break this cycle and nurture the students' internal motivation and growth towards becoming lifelong learners.
Is there a cooperative model?
Is there, in an era when separateness and individual liberty and commitment to expressing and perfecting one's talent (however useful it may be to society) have become focal points of our culture, and have acquired the status of a benchmark or baseline, any alternative to the competitive model? Surely there is: cooperation. Krishnamurti writes, in Think on These Things: To co-operate is to do things together, to build together, to feel together, to have something in common so that we can freely work together. But people generally don't feel inclined to work together naturally, easily, happily; and so they are compelled to work through various inducements: threat, fear, punishment, reward. This is the common practice throughout the world. Under tyrannical governments you are brutally forced to work together; if you don't 'co-operate' you are liquidated or sent to a concentration camp. In the so-called civilised nations you are induced to work together through the concept of 'my country', or for an ideology which has been very carefully worked out and widely propagated so that you accept it.
What makes human beings cooperate with one another? Typically it is the promise of a collective reward: we work together so that we can achieve some aim that we jointly value. For instance, if our intention is to beat the opposing team in a game of cricket (Lagaan style), then we will surely co- operate with one another in making this possible. It generally happens in such cases that it is the goal that binds us together; once the goal has been accomplished, the relationship too will most likely lose its vitality. A classic example of this is the cooperation between the U.S.A.and U.S.S.R. during World War II, when the common aim was to extinguish the Nazi menace. Once the goal was accomplished, relationship vanished - to be replaced by a glacial hostility: the 'Cold War'. It can easily be shown that aims and goals - however noble, and however urgent - do not serve to bring people together in any essentially lasting manner.
Krishnamurti continues: Your idea of co- operation is to work together for a particular result. You have an ideal - to build a perfect school, or what you will - towards which you are working, therefore you say co-operation is necessary. Now I don't call that co-operation at all, it is a form of greed, a form of fear, compulsion. Nor is it co- operation when you and I work together merely because we have mutually agreed to do something. In any such agreement, what is important is the doing of that particular thing, not working together. So it is not co-operation when we work together through any form of inducement, or by mere agreement, because behind all such efforts there is an implication of gaining or avoiding something.
What then is cooperation? Is it possible for us to work together simply for the joy of being and living together? This possibility introduces a totally new paradigm, and its consequences are tremendous. One vital consequence is that we shall wipe out all hurts and all misunderstandings the very day they arise - simply because we are living together. To be able to create such an environment requires a great deal of affection on the part of the teacher. And this, surely, is the real work of the teacher. Krishnamurti writes: To me, co-operation is entirely different. Co- operation is the fun of being and doing together - not necessarily doing something in particular. [Real] co-operation comes, not through merely agreeing to carry out some project together, but with joy, the feeling of togetherness, if one may use that word; because in that feeling there is not the obstinacy of personal ideation, personal opinion. When you know such co-operation, you will also know when not to co-operate, which is equally important; because if we are not wise we may co-operate with the unwise, with ambitious leaders who have grandiose schemes, fantastic ideas, like Hitler and other tyrants down through the ages. So we must know when not to co-operate; and we can know this only when we know the joy of real co-operation.
Can there be non-comparative assessment?
Assessment is intrinsic to learning, and this is so whether one refers to the world of the 'outer' - matter, life, - or to theworld of the 'inner'. Traditionally, systems of assessment are (virtually without exception) comparative in nature, and they are based on precisely one instrument: tests and examinations. The test/examination may be of different kinds (essay type, 'objective' type), but the philosophy at bottom hardly varies. In the light of the remarks made on the negative consequences of competition, a natural question to ask is whether there are non-comparativeways of assessing competence and learning, and giving feedback to a student. The difficulties in finding a just and humane approach to assessment and feedback are formidable, and they derive from the fact that probably no two students learn in quite the same manner, or reconstruct the world within the psyche in quite the same way. Each student carries with him a unique background, a unique style of learning. Against such a backdrop, the idea of a single instrument to assess every student or every kind of competence seems completely unrealistic. What we must look for, then, is not a single instrument of assessment, but a whole collection of such instruments.
Indeed there are alternatives possible, but it requires a strong will on the part of the school to work through their implications. We list some possibilities here.
(a) There is assessment by peers/self-assessment, in which students themselves take part in the task. The attempt to understand what one's peers have achieved, and whether the achievements are in consonance with the expected outcomes, can be highly instructive. Also, such an approach encourages the development of supportive values (in contrast with competitive values). All this has a great deal of relevance for later life.
(b) Another possibility is assessment by portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of an individual's work done over a period of time; it seeks to capture the full range of activities in which he has taken part. This approach is well known in the world of art and sculpture, but has not been used in mainstream academics. It could easily be extended to areas involving essay-type writing. Traditionally, in subjects such as mathematics there is little or no scope for essay-type writing; problem solving dominates both teaching and assessment. However new ideas are entering the field, and the importance of writing, of reconstructing concepts through the written medium, is increasingly being realised.
(c) There is also assessment by interview. Sometimes an interview - a formalised 'conversation' between the student and teacher - may yield insights about the student that do not emerge in the written form. There is wide scope here for tailoring the approach to the needs of the individual. Surely, more such instruments can be devised. Most of the remarks made above hold for assessment in the world of the 'outer', but it is also necessary that assessment takes place in the world of the 'inner': finding out the extent to which we are opinionated, how open we are to others' views, how tightly we cling to hurts and images, how prejudiced we are towards members of other religions and other nations, what we value deeply, the way in which we regard our fellow human beings, and so on. This consideration opens out a whole new area, and its implications may need to be explored further.