Zeller advocates mastery of educational concepts before students are encouraged to compete in the classroom.

Zeller advocates mastery of educational concepts before students are encouraged to compete in the classroom.

(Editor’s note: Brent Zeller is the author of the provocative book Evolutionary Education: Moving Beyond Our Competitive Compulsion. Here, he explains why he believes competition is detrimental to learning. Comments are welcome at the bottom of the page.)

In 1988, after 20 years of learning and playing tennis, and 14 years of teaching it to thousands of students, I had a simple realization: The introduction of competition before we achieve proficiency in the fundamental physical, mental, and emotional skills compromises all aspects of the learning process.

Like many realizations, mine was a dawning awareness of a truth dimly intuited for years that in retrospect seemed obvious. Like most people, I had believed in the value of competition without ever questioning it.

It was how I had been taught, was all I had ever known, and everyone I knew believed it, too.

Although there is widespread recognition of the many problems in our educational system, there is little recognition or acknowledgement of what I now see as our educational system’s fatal flaw–the competitive model on which it is based.

While people across the political and educational spectrum agree that our educational system is flawed and propose various, often contradictory, solutions, almost all affirm the value and necessity of competition in the learning process.

Competitive learning is widespread and routine in our educational system. In almost every school, sport, subject, and skill, beginning students are thrown prematurely into some form of competition (including the pressure to seek a good grade), long before they have even approached basic competence. Competition is often introduced at the very start of a student’s involvement with a subject, sport, or activity.

Our collective faith in the competitive system is conditioned and inherited, not based in objective evidence. The belief that a competitive learning environment is the ideal learning environment doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

It is based on an implausible argument that the pressure and stress of competition, the fear of the consequences of losing, the aggressive striving against others, and the desire for the rewards of winning, somehow focuses attention, ignites motivation, develops strength, builds character, and produces excellence. Yet this belief is built on denial and rationalization, for it ignores the negative impact and consequences of premature competition on children and adult students.

After my epiphany in 1988, I reexamined my lifelong experience as a student, competitor, and teacher. I noticed the now-apparent flaws and fallacies of the competitive model, and came to an obvious and logical conclusion: The prevalence of competition in the learning process is the primary reason that most people do not achieve true excellence, mastery, or fulfill their potential in school, sports, music, and almost every other field of learning.

The skills developed in a competitive system occur despite–rather than because of–competition. Competition has motivated a small percentage of people to great accomplishment. But much of that motivation comes from an unhealthy emphasis on winning, fear of losing, and an immature self-esteem derived from defeating others and thereby gaining status.