Playground to classroom: Cooperation over competition

Written by: David Kazamias | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The idea of competition haunts our education system, but the downwards spiralling pressure of the competitive spirit is corrosive. From the playground to the classroom, David Kazamias outlines small steps that can be taken to counter this


Competition has changed much over the centuries. The root of the word, petere (-pet), means “to rush”, “to fly”, “to strive”; its prefix, com-, means “together”, “with”, “in combination”. But despite this somewhat broad etymology, the sporting heritage of the word has injected it with the notion of rivalry, victory and defeat. At times it has accrued a war-like dressage, an aura of violence.

Beyond the arenas of sport and combat, the term is mostly used within evolutionary biology or economic contexts. It is no stretch to say that the latter has weaponised the former.

Darwin’s theories, as with many evolutionary biologists, have been consistently hijacked by ideologues. In the words of Andrew Carnegie: “The law of competition (...) is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest.”

Despite its jarring language, Carnegie’s logic remains operative today.

“Competition” and “cooperation” share similar etymologies. Naturally their word-roots differ: “to work” is a far-cry from “to strive”. But their prefixes come from the exact same source, “with” becomes the operative element. Yet the two have been dragged into an ideological rift. There is a false dichotomy at the heart of their imposed rivalry: cooperation is not a rejection of individual success, just as competition is not a rejection of the group.

But this modern spirit of competition, which is combative and economic, haunts our educational structures. To claim that this spirit is fundamental – an essence of the human condition – feels spurious, opportunistic, and cynical.

Learning is process-based. The obsessive focus on ends that comes with the competitive spirit fails to grasp how the process is often more important than any product. To lose sight of this process is to lose sight of education itself.

Only through a broader embracement of the cooperative spirit can we move away from the economic and combative elements that have seeped into our local, national and intranational educational structures. Here are some suggestions for how...


The games we play

Leading play theorist Thomas Henricks believes that “play is central to development, because play is the laboratory where individuals exercise and refine their abilities to comprehend and manage the world”.

Play in many senses is the foundation of being and learning, and it is the activity that presupposes many of our social interactions, be that cooperative or competitive (Henricks, 2020). So the playground seems to be the perfect starting point when trying to broaden practices of cooperation in schools.

The importance of the spatial organisation of the playground has been explored in great detail in an emerging sector of play studies known as “playwork”. It cites that playscapes should be manufactured with community play in mind.

Large open spaces lend themselves to the dominant groups spreading themselves out and controlling the area. Whereas a variety of different structures and apparatuses can allow new and interesting forms of play to emerge. The playgrounds are best, claim researchers, when the areas are not overdesigned, but instead conducive to messy and unregulated play (Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2008).

During breaks, schools could offer play-equipment that involve some element of cooperation. A variety of play should be encouraged: not only balls but frisbees, skipping ropes, rackets, building blocks, etc. Equipment and games that encourage team-work also help “regulate” the play.

Furthermore, playground percussion instruments or large chalkboards can even encourage music or art creation in cooperative settings. Perhaps a common mistake in thinking is that secondary school students are too old for such things.

As regards to the more overtly competitive games (football, rugby, basketball, etc), a teacher may have to guide and instruct to ensure a more cooperative style of play. A combative competitive spirit spirals downwards from professional sports. The stardom of the individual is often mimicked in the playground. Children want to embarrass each other rather than learn how to pass effectively as a team.

There are many critics of “adult-managed” style of play, but developing a culture of fairness and collective responsibility does not run contrary to nurturing autonomy.

Moreover, many of these sports often require prerequisite skills, which detract from participation. Female participation is shockingly low in “open” games. Boys play with boys, and girls are often sidelined and discouraged (Clark & Paetcher, 2007). This should be a red flag for educators. But with regulation, the play can be opened up.

A school could encourage wider participation by assigning pitches, balls, nets, etc, to one year group a day, or even by having specific gendered days of the week.


At the chalkface

Competition in the classroom has been a central part of education for time immemorial. In many senses, it is bound up with how we presume we learn. Yet it has taken on an added severity in recent decades, with specific regards to our ideologies surrounding meritocracy and our notions around excellence.

Our obsession with excellence is part of the problem. The Finnish proverb “real winners do not compete” seems to aptly reflect Finland’s approach to schooling. Their focus, in contrast to most other OECD countries, is on equity rather than excellence. Excellence is the target our structures encourage us to aim for. But excellence in many cases seems to be zero-sum, and through this schools create an “artificial scarcity” (Kohn, 2007, 2019). The game is rigged so that there has to be losers.

Alongside this we have our ideology of merit. Meritocracy does well to whitewash over fundamental issues of inequality. The link between educational “success” and economic advantage becomes obscured through the consistent trumpeting of individual merit.

Just as Sandel has criticised in his most recent book: “Those who prevail in a competitive meritocracy are indebted in ways the competition obscures. As the meritocracy intensifies, the striving so absorbs us that our indebtedness recedes from view.” We are left, in his view, “with the impression that we have made it on our own” (Sandel, 2020).

The case in favour of competition is always rooted in promoting excellence and giving merit to those who have out-performed their peers. The fear is that without competition we would not be excelling in the ways we need to. And that if we moved to something less merit-based and more equitable we would reduce incentives for striving. But the received wisdom about competition being vital for productivity is not reflected in any substantial classroom meta-analysis. Moreover, a great deal of data supports cooperation being just as, if not more, productive in a classroom setting. (OECD, 2019).

There is also a clear link to be made between those who have privilege and those who enjoy competitive environments. Disadvantaged students benefit much more from cooperative tasks and goals. Females, in the classroom just as in the playground, are also more averse to competition than males. Moreover, as much medical research now suggests, even “the winners” suffer physiologically and psychologically under competition.


Bring cooperation into the classroom

Despite the pervasiveness of competition, there are still concrete ways to dilute or abolish it in the classroom.

First, developing a critical eye and discourse is important. What parts of our practice are steeped in the ethos and logic of competition? How can it be damaging to the students involved? Thematisation and sensibilisation are always the first big steps.

Second, as teachers we need to then reconstruct our own practices and activities. Kohn takes the children’s game musical chairs to make his point. Rather than removing one chair and one child at a time, what if we just removed one chair and allowed the children to clamber on the chairs remaining? This reformation and reconstruction of our class activities and tasks is no huge overhaul or magic trick, it just means trying to make our lessons as cooperative as possible when possible.

For example, rather than just assigning groups we should also assign roles as this creates interdependence. Individual accountability for the group’s goals also creates a shared sense of responsibility. And by implementing a practice of open and transparent reflection after group activities we encourage students to maintain healthy relationships while developing group effectiveness (Johnson, 1984).

Third, the competitive logic within assessments needs to be diluted, or completely abolished. To dilute, assessment feedback can become qualitative, and done in accordance with the student. To abolish, we could move towards something like a descriptive portfolio rather than a single numerical system. The pandemic brought unintended rupture to assessment, and it showed us how abolishing high-stakes examinations was no giant step, either ideologically or technologically.


Trees or the forest

It is hard to deconstruct competition in the playground and classroom when it has such a pivotal role on the larger scale. It is in many sense the oil that is used for our mechanisms of separation and selection. Parents are forced to compete with other parents for school places. Schools are made to compete with each other for student placements and funding. And countries are made to compete with each other in global rankings. Competition has become central to how we organise ourselves.

The downwards spiralling pressure of the competitive spirit is corrosive. There are many small steps that can be taken to alleviate or counter this pressure. Yet small shifts in the playground or classroom cannot bring the radical reconfiguration that is needed.

The intense rise in high-stakes assessments over the decades, the league-table drive for outstanding test performances, the academisation of comprehensives, and the marketisation and standardisation of education more generally, all testify to a through-and-through competition-based approach to education.

But if we want fair, equitable, dignified and productive schools then we must embrace cooperation.

  • David Kazamias is head of English at a secondary school in Wedding, Berlin in Germany.


Further information & reading

  • Clark & Paetcher: Why can’t girls play football? Gender dynamics and the playground, Sport Education and Society (vol 12), 2007.
  • Frost, Wortham & Reifel, Play and Child Development, Pearson, 2008.
  • Henricks: Play Studies: A brief history, American Journal of Play (vol 12), 2020.
  • Johnson & et al: Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the classroom, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1984.
  • Kohn: Can everyone be excellent? New York Times, June 2019: www.alfiekohn.org/article/excellence/
  • Kohn: Against competitiveness, Education Week, September 2007: www.alfiekohn.org/article/competitiveness/
  • Sandel: Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2020.
  • OECD: PISA 2018 Results: Chapter 8: Student cooperation and competition, December 2019: https://bit.ly/2XHgBAr


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