Competition and Cooperation at Sudbury Valley

From my teaching days, there is a particular moment I remember with special sadness:

It’s the moment in the semester when everything kind of closes up, and it happened without fail just a few weeks into the school year, coinciding directly with the first test and graded homework assignments. A certain glumness entered the classroom, and while recipients of A grades tended to appear both confirmed and nervously elated (now they had something to lose), the differently graded seemed to recede just a touch, maybe resolving to work harder, or licking their wounded sense of self or calculating what this might mean for their GPA. Some seemed to assume a slightly aggressive stance, feeling hurt, or wronged, I suppose, getting ready to fight. Ah, welcome to reality, I would say to myself, making sure to return anything graded at the very end of a class, and flee.

Now that I have not been teaching in these kinds of settings for a while, this particular rhythm of a hopeful, excited beginning, followed by a profound sense of dread and things closing up, seems to me the defining characteristic of my experience with most institutionalized education.

In particular, it brings me back to my first year of school. I didn’t particularly want to go to school, but I did very much want to learn how to read, and was excited about that, as well as this new phase in my life. My first year ended with a general assessment of my school performance by my classroom teacher as “good, very good in reading”, notwithstanding the fact that my reading skills consisted primarily of memorization. But then it was summer, I could try to forget the strange sting of having been deemed just “good” when I could apparently have been “very good”, and of perhaps being a fraud at the one thing I was supposedly “very good” at. By the beginning of the next school year, I could read, miraculously, for real, without any further school intervention, and so began my 13 year school career of worrying about being judged “good”, “or very good”, or “bad”, and why, in all kinds of areas.

What, I wonder, would have happened if that first year had just ended, with nobody saying anything about my “performance”? I would still have learned how to read – would I have perhaps felt less guilty and conflicted in the process?

I mean, it’s not that I didn’t know competition. I have a younger brother and an older sister, and competition could be fierce. There was also the other competition in school, for example, with girls whose hair was longer than mine! And everybody had a nicer school pack than mine! It’s funny what seemingly trivial stuff my sense of self – and value – was tied to even then, not just if I could read well. But now there was this other element in there: a teacher, an authority that would mete out judgement that had to somehow be taken into account, or ignored, which was hard, especially if the judgement was favorable.

At Sudbury Valley, we don’t give grades, and we don’t have report cards. We do have competition though, and there is judgement of all kinds. Not because we have instituted these things, but because people come like that. The fiercest competition I have seen recently has been among the youngest kids. Each of them wants to be best at, first in, and most of everything. They also like to lead. It’s quite stressful, for them and those around them, and I think a lot of what they are learning in their first years here is how to deal with this kind of competition that stems from themselves, in particular their incessant comparing of each other, not because we set them up against each other. I also think that there is no particular curriculum that can teach the ability to live with and modulate yourself and others’ competitiveness. We all know we shouldn’t be envious, jealous, or exclude people, but the hard part is figuring out how to handle and manage these kinds of competitive reactions to each other in real life.

Mimsy, in her post “Age Mixing, Another View”, analyzed interactions observed in the art room that described very well how astonishingly free students at SVS can feel to admire skills and talents in each other, including younger students, which is always a special competitive challenge. I would call the freedom Mimsy described in particular as the freedom to copy, to try to do what you saw somebody else doing, no matter how much older or younger this other person might be, and make it your own. Freedom to copy sounds perhaps a bit self-contradictory, but if I think of how often I have stopped myself from trying to do things I’ve envied in somebody else, muttering to myself something about how I should have thought of that already, or, coming up with ‘good’ reasons for why I’m not doing it, I can appreciate the enormousness of this freedom, a freedom that permeates SVS, and the art room in particular.

Recently, I witnessed something else in the art room that showed me how SVS students can handle some issues of competition and judgement, as they exist between people. I was invited to participate in a game designed by students. It went like this: One participant was judge, a role that rotated among the participants. With their eyes closed, the participants chose a set number of colored markers. With the randomly picked colored markers, the participants then had to draw a picture of something the judge announced (e.g., a house), in a limited amount of time. When the time was up, the judge would look at the pictures and decide which one was the best. Then somebody else would be judge, and another round would begin.

Why would SVS students play this kind of game? Observing it and participating in it reminded me of the fact that people seek out competition and judgement by themselves, and that there can be a thrill in it. This particular self-designed game allowed students to play with the elements of random challenges (colors, allowed time), drawing styles, skills, and the judge’s opinions, in a way that felt fair, challenging, and fun I think because it was a game students had control over, because it varied (more/less colors, time, etc.), and because the role of the judge rotated (not, I’d like to note, because there was an agreed set of criteria for what would be a good picture, which would have made everything very dull). You can get to feel what it’s like to be judged, and you can be the judge. You can also decide when and with whom to play the game. If you don’t like the judge, or the participants, you don’t have to play. Students did join in and leave the game easily.

Many rounds ended with some kind of conversation about the pictures, and mutual commentary of the kind I hear students elicit from each other in the art room at other occasions too, such as: “What color do you think this should be?” While personally, I cannot imagine creating something while taking input from folks around me, some people apparently do. Sometimes, these conversations might have a social function that is different from determining which color, for example, something should, in fact, be in or not. In any case, these are the kinds of exchanges so highly valued by educators, and in most educational settings, not so easy to come by. Turns out co-operative feedback rounds don’t have to be scheduled into lessons plans, if you let students work and talk freely. They’ll get – and give – feedback without being prompted by a teacher.

“Competition is a major factor in education” states the Wikipedia article on “Competition”. I think that is true. People are competitive, people compare, and people judge. The challenge seems to me to consist in learning how to handle whatever competitiveness we come with, what judgements we are confronted with by others, and what judgements we find ourselves forming constantly.

Stoking the fires of competitiveness by converting various levels of skillfulness, knowledge, and achievement into seemingly easily comparable grids of grades, as schools have made it their business to do, is not, in my experience, at all helpful.

We don’t need schools for students to be graded, but we need schools as places where people are free to test themselves, to learn from grappling with themselves and others, and where they are allowed to form judgement and use it for themselves.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.