Five Steps to End School Bullying: Collaboration, Not Competition (Essay 2 of 6)

We previously pointed out that the first step to ending school bullying was to end age segregation.[1] The second step is to eliminate competition and grades.

The most overt (and odious) function of schooling is a sorting function. Edward Thorndike, the father of modern educational psychology, pushed for standardized classes, homework, and tests in schools in order to rank students. He figured that ‘smart’ students would thrive under these conditions, and that less intelligent students would falter.[2] He did not see students faltering as a shortcoming of the system, he saw it as a desired outcome. He would ask you, why waste resources on students who were unlikely to benefit from the time and money invested in them? 

What Thorndike did not know, and what we know today, is that learning is not linear. Learning happens in spurts, and cannot be set to a developmental timeline. Some of the most intellectually curious learners seem to be going nowhere for long periods of time, while those who appear to most quickly learn subject material often get lost in the long run. Yet our schools still judge students as Thorndike wanted them to be judged over a century ago—by the speed at which they can master predefined tasks.

Schools judge and sort students by grading them. In the overwhelming majority of traditional schools, students are given a letter grade (or worse, a numeric grade) for each class that they take. This helps administrators and teachers quickly determine whether the students are dumb, average, or smart by subject area (although they often use the euphemisms basic, proficient, and advanced). While the adults may appreciate being able to measure and rank students, young people tend to absorb these grades into their self-worth. And because schools would be unable to rank students if they gave all of them perfects scores, most students are going to accept that they are less than intelligent. This may come in the form of “I am not good at math,” “I am a bad writer,” or “I don’t like science.” And unsurprisingly, when students come to embrace the belief that they are not good at certain subjects, or that they are dumb, they often give up on the learning process.

While grading is detrimental to the self-confidence of most students, and undermines the learning process, it also tends to negatively alter the behavior of parents. Parents generally understand that the prospects of their children getting into top colleges out of traditional high schools requires that their children rank at the top of their class. In order to rank at the top of the class, it is not sufficient to master the content of the classes they take, or to love learning. Instead, they must get the highest grades in all subjects. When the ultimate measure of academic success becomes whether or not one gets higher grades than all of his peers, there is no room for anything less than winning. Winning isn’t everything in the eyes of these parents, it’s the only thing.

With a hyperfocus on being number one, cheating becomes one way to rise in the hierarchy above one’s peers.[3][4] Other students become relegated to nothing more than competition, and this idea is reinforced by teachers who are quick to accuse collaborators of cheating.

Additionally, the focus on outperforming peers then bleeds into other activities that colleges care about when considering traditional schooled applicants, namely sports and clubs. Participation and engagement alone does not allow one to rise above. Instead, students recognize that they must be the Captain of the football or volleyball team, the President of the debate or robotics club, the Editor of the student newspaper, and the President of the student council. And while cheating becomes the way to squeeze out those extra points to get the top grades, a Machiavellian approach to stepping on classmates and teammates often becomes the way to rise to the top of extracurricular activities.

In the schooling environment where everyone wants to be number one, bullying becomes ingrained in the fabric of the culture of the school. If they cannot be at the top of the class academically, at least they can assert their position socially. Where hierarchy is everything, many students resort to bullying as a way to secure their spot at the top of the class, or at least above select others (the bullied). And because so few can be at the top of the class academically or socially, there is significant pressure for schoolgoing children to engage in bullying, or to lend support to bullies.[5] Even the popular kids, the ones us adults so often assume to be doing the best, often engage in bullying. And disturbingly, the students who are the most popular with the teachers and administrators are often given the longest leash to engage in the most aggressive forms of bullying.[6]

In order to eliminate the bullying effects of competition in school, schools need to eliminate competition. Unfortunately, most schools cannot fathom a world without competition, because competition is the bedrock of the academic experience, and it is what is expected from parents, administrators, and bureaucrats. The simplest and most meaningful step toward eliminating competition is eliminating grades. Some schools give lip service to the value of reducing the pressure of grading, and a smaller subset of schools will ‘refuse to rank’ students to address the harmful effects of competition, yet they continue to grade students.[7] Schools can eliminate academic ranking by eliminating grading.[8]

The next step schools should take to eliminate competition is to embrace age-mixing, as articulated in the first essay in this series on bullying. When students are surrounded by other people appreciably older or younger than them, the urge to compete lessens dramatically. There is little reason for a ten-year-old to attempt to show that they are superior to a six-year-old, or a 14-year-old. Simply put, society does not expect six-, ten-, and 14-year-olds to compete with each other. Hopefully, someday, society will no longer expect ten-year-olds to compete with ten-year-olds, either.

Once schools eliminate grading and age segregation, they will be able to truly embrace collaboration in lieu of competition.[9] In a collaborative environment, the emphasis is not on how much more one knows than another, it is on what students can accomplish together. In such an environment, every member of the community is valued for what they can contribute to the experiences of others, and the need to jockey for position relative to one another disappears.

The collaborative environment we propose does not take away opportunities for leadership roles. Those leadership opportunities will be able to grow out of demonstrated interest and intentional action in the pursuit of one’s goals. Without the focus on beating one’s peers, there is less of a stigma in joining someone else’s project (becoming a follower). And in an environment with age diversity, it is natural for younger people to join in the efforts of older people without feeling as though one is not measuring up to the leader.   

When we eliminate competition, we eliminate the existence of losers. In an environment where no one becomes a loser, the need for bullying evaporates.







(7)   College admission committees are not thrown off by schools that ‘refuse to rank’ their students. The committees get a profile of each high school, and back their way into figuring out how each applicant compares to their peers. Further, if multiple students from a given school are applying, it becomes readily apparent where in the rank order the various applicants fall. This reality can often exacerbate the stress that comes from grades, as students work frantically to improve their unknown position against peers.

(8)   It is important to note that in addition to promoting a bullying culture, as previously mentioned, grading is harmful to students from a learning perspective. Even if schools were uninterested in addressing the issue of bullying, it would make sense for them to eliminate grading. An argument against eliminating grading would be that grading is necessary to assess what the students are learning. However, the reality is that assessments do not require testing or grades.

Non-graded assessments, in general, still undermine learning. Students benefit the most when they are able to deeply engage in learning without external pressure. If students know they are being evaluated, even if there are no consequences to the results of the evaluations, they are more likely to lose interest in the activity. This point is described well by Alfie Kohn in an essay on grading:  

(9)   While many argue that just a little competition peppered into a collaborative environment is better than full collaboration or no collaboration, the truth is that any amount of competition gets in the way of collaboration. Once again, Alfie Kohn covers this well in an essay on competition in collaborative classrooms: