It's inevitable and happens nearly every time I'm planning projects with teachers.
We've just designed a fantastic project with a complex engaging question, an exciting product and lots of ways students can explore content. We've even managed to nail a really authentic audience. I start to think that maybe this is the best project design I've ever seen.
And then, without fail, it happens:
"The audience could choose the best project and there could be a winner!"
Or the more subtle:
"We could choose the best products at the end and display them in the school!"
My stomach drops and I know a difficult conversation lies ahead.
For the record, I'm not against competition. I've been involved in athletics my entire life. I played tennis and softball at the college level. I played full-contact roller derby up until a few years ago when my children were born. I love the spirit of competition and I will even admit, I am quite motivated by it.
But I do not think it has a place in Project-Based Learning.
I can understand why making projects into competitions is attractive to teachers. Most of us give an extra effort if there's a reward of some kind at the end, even if it's just to be chosen as "the best." On the surface, adding a competitive element to teaching just makes sense if we want our students to produce their best work.
To understand my disagreement with this, let's explore the experience of students who are working on a project where there is a winner chosen.
Several years ago, a teaching team I was working with designed a United Nations Project where the engaging question was: How can we understand the different perspectives of countries in current events? Groups of students researched countries, prepared foreign policy statements around various current issues and created a booth with the information for Exhibition participants to visit and interact with. Somewhere in the planning, they adopted the idea of having the participants give points to teams and at the end, a winner would be chosen and announced to close the Exhibition.
The project launched and the teachers introduced this idea to the classes from the beginning. Some students were visibly motivated, talking to their groups in low whispers with excitement and secrecy. Other students sat silently, unsure. From the very start of the project, the element of competition became an entry point into the project for some and an obstacle for others. It ignited a fire in some groups and shut down curiosity in others.
As the project continued, the element of competition wasn't talked about much within groups but I noticed groups were functioning largely independently of one another. I asked the teachers about when students would give feedback to each other and they said the students refused to do it... they would be giving ideas to other groups who could steal them and win. The community spirit of students supporting each other; of everyone working to elevate the quality of work within a project was gone. A powerful PBL tool (peer to peer critique) was made impossible to do.
The week before exhibition is when I started to really wonder what impact competition had on this project. Students could start to see the work of other groups and instead of motivating them, it actually caused a few groups to quit. Given the time they had left, there was no way they could produce the level of work of their peers. What was the point? To be honest, I had to agree with the students. The Exhibition would not be a celebration of learning, it would be a showcase of something they were not proud of. Not because they didn't learn significantly in the project but because their work was not "the best" or as good as their peers.
There are classrooms with students who have never won anything. And they know it. Their peers know it. Connecting winning to learning does not present a new opportunity for students to win... it reinforces past experiences and sends a message that the learning is not important. The winning is. And by default, if you're not a winner, you're a loser.
There are no losers in learning. Period.
The following year, this same team designed a project where students partnered with an elderly person at a care-home close to the school. They visited the person, read books with them and in return, the person shared artifacts, photos and stories from their past. The students created interview questions to learn about history and interviewed their partners. The final product was a hand-drawn portrait done by the students as a gift to their person. At exhibition, students proudly displayed their drawings and stories. They invited the partners from the care-home and gave them a copy of their portrait and text.
There was no need for a competition. For winners or losers. The students were motivated to do this project because it made a difference to someone. It brought joy. It brought connection.
I heard afterwards the story of one student who was not making deadlines and it was unlikely he would finish his drawing in time for the Exhibition. A few of his classmates who had finished early offered to help him so he would have something to give his person. The beauty of this anecdote still moves me today.
The teachers resolved to display all of the products of this project in a hallway of their school. Yes, all 90 drawings and texts. They wanted to send a message to their students that their work is valued. All of it. Not just the best. Not just the winners. It's all important.
I'm not a researcher, nor do I have the desire to dig up quotes, articles and statistics about motivation and learning. I don't need to. The question of using competition with learning comes down to a single fundamental idea: what kind of communities do we want to build? I'm not talking just about classrooms. I'm talking about our communities, cities, countries... our world.
So, what do we value?
When we design projects that are based on what is "best" we show what we value.
When we design projects that are based on making a difference, joy and connection we show what we value.
Over the years I've come to anticipate that I will have this conversation with nearly every group of teachers I work with. It's not their fault. I've learned to take this discussion head-on when it comes up, though I also know most teachers will not understand this lesson until they have actually done a project with students that is so authentic and meaningful they could never think about learning any other way.
After all, experience is the best teacher.