Alfie Kohn: Rewards and Competition

A question I’ve considered many years: Why is it that so many of the tasks we perform in our culture – at home, at school, at work, at play – are set up […] where most of us can succeed only at the price of another’s failure. – Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn is one of my heros in the field of education. He is an American author and lecturer on topics pertaining to human behaviour, parenting, and education. His website contains a series of links to articles he’s written, books published, his personal blog, and a series of “online freebies” (e.g. video/audio). 

In the video below, Kohn speaks to a group of educators about the effects of competition in the classroom (my thoughts here). To put it simply, competition kills creativity; it teaches students a “sink or swim” attitude and that one’s success comes only at another’s failure. He argues that competition is never the optimal arrangement. In contrast, cooperation and collaboration lends itself to better attitudes and results, both in the classroom and in society as a whole.

As an aspiring educator, I couldn’t help but also notice the way Kohn engages his audience as well. He skillfully navigates the content of his lecture while drawing his audience into the discussion as well. He starts by surveying the audience to see what their professions are, creating a simple but effective connection. Then, he provides an example of a study having to do with competition that yielded some fascinating result, and prompts the audience to think about why those results may have been produced. He gives the audience a chance to discuss their thoughts with someone near them, and takes some time to talk about other relevant observations he’s made on the topic before getting the audience to share their responses. That way, he sets the stage for the depth and type of responses expected of his audience, and they also get some time to refine and further develop their responses before sharing with the larger group.

Watching and listening to Mr. Kohn speak is such a privilege. He’s funny, insightful, and thought provoking. Definitely worth the watch!