Teachers, have you discovered the power of the Competitive Teaching Model?

Serena Williams has won an astounding 20 Grand Slam singles titles, along with 13 Grand Slam doubles titles with sister Venus. By anyone’s measure, this makes the “Queen of the Court” a bona fide expert on competition. And, although raised in Compton, California, sharpening her tennis focus as gunshots echoed throughout her neighborhood, it’s Williams’ perspective on competition – specifically losing – that has always inspired me:

“If anything, you know, I think losing makes me more motivated.” – Serena Williams

Here’s a world-class athlete, who by her own admission “hates losing,” applying Dweck’s growth-mindset to the international dog-eat-dog world of professional women’s tennis. At 33 Williams is impressively the Women’s Tennis Association’s world No. 1, yet it’s her approach to competition and the impact it’s had on her life that has affirmed my work for the past eight years.

The frontline of education

When I arrived at Maplewood High School in the spring of 2008 two things were undeniably clear:

1. The school was inches away from a state-takeover.

2. Traditional teaching methods would not suffice.

However, the plight of Maplewood High mirrors the hardened reality of so many other schools across the globe and their hard fought journeys to increase student achievement, while simultaneously closing achievement gaps, combating merciless poverty and stabilizing teacher retention.

Moreover, the valiant teachers who dedicate their lives serving on the front lines realize quickly it takes more than Pearson products or the latest app development to inspire students who have historically been written-off and ostracized by society at-large.

The evolution of collaboration

Before I applied for a doctoral program, before I researched Freud, Maslow, Akey, or Finn, before I naively took the stage at TEDxAntioch, there was Ryan O. Murphey (@ryanomurphey). Everyone has that handful of life experiences that we are convinced irreversibly changed our lives forever. One of my select few is meeting the man who would become my teaching mentor yet biggest competitor.

Soon after my arrival at Maplewood, Murphey and I began collaborating. The Texas bluegrass anomaly, who’d already done a couple of years at Maplewood, and a redheaded twenty something from Evansville, Indiana used English Language Arts content as a platform to not only build our unique curriculums but also solidify a one-of-a-kind friendship, collaborating feverishly while pushing each other to be our very best.

Murphey was without question my teaching mentor. From unit plans to seating arrangements, syllabi to summative assessments – if Maplewood was Tatoonie, Murphey was undoubtedly Obi-won. Yet in true Jedi fashion, I knew collaboration would only get us both so far. If we were to truly help students grasp the next rung on the student-achievement ladder, we would have to extend our synapse-warrior mindset into a full-blown pedagogical sparring match.

Then one day it happened.

I made an announcement to a classroom full of 35 juniors that we would be challenging Mr. Murphey’s class in the upcoming writing assessment benchmark.

And that’s when everything changed.

Introducing the Competitive Teaching Solution

Born out of necessity, the Competitive Teaching Model officially took shape as my teaching experience and better understanding of how and why students learn continued to grow. I didn’t need 15 years of experience to understand students learn differently. In fact, after only four days in a loaded classroom, it became unavoidably obvious students need tailored instruction, nanosecond feedback and a shared goal to rally around.

Cooperative competitors!
Cooperative competitors!

This triangulation of pedagogies began to shape my entire teaching style. As I began digging deeper into the how and why, it became more and more clear my role was transitioning from didactic teacher to facilitating coach. Great teachers maximize the absolute best out of students by gaining significant insight into them as learners and people. This new focus and approach to individual student needs was a catalyst in creating a culture of trust in the classroom, which inevitably became the lynchpin of our success. Franklin Covey’s Chief People Officer Todd Davis may have said it best, “High trust culture is the competitive advantage.”

Any educator worth her salt knows the value of differentiated instruction and formative assessments. What remains a mystery to most teachers is the real-time application of these non-negotiables and how catering them to specific student needs impacts learning, retention and attitude.

However, this mystery can be solved in as much time as it takes to refresh your Twitter feed. Students react favorably to personalized feedback, based on tailored instruction. This reality cemented my student-centered approach to teaching. Insight had now turned to outright inspiration, which commanded a new kind of student attention, offering the perfect opportunity to unleash a shared vision.

 When Freud met Maslow

The unyielding reality is great teachers work both smarter and harder. Thus, students need a psychological X-factor, an intangible motivator that goes far beyond the occasional piece of candy or fist-bump. I leveraged my growing sense of teacher-efficacy with increased student buy-in and positioned my classes as the underdogs. As I began creating an ethos and identity for each class, a psychological thunderstorm was brewing.

Famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud asserts that man’s innate desire to hunt and kill to survive has not vanished – merely transformed into his innate desire to win. This primordial instinct formed the cornerstone of how my classes would do business. We were learning and growing, perpetually sharpening our skillsets so as to do what underdogs do best: prove to everyone we were significant, not once, not ever to be underestimated.

Celebrate Success!

Where Freud’s emphasis dealt primarily with man’s origins, the grandfather of modern psychology Abraham Maslow helped actualize our present. I quickly realized when underdogs perceive themselves as formidable, affirmed by hands-on leadership and personalized practice, a life-changing shift happens. As my classes identified common goals – competing against other classes – an overwhelming sense of belonging took hold. Students found strength in their unique talents and applied these individual pillars to form a collective Parthenon. No longer was competition solely for the athletic or artistically gifted. Now, a kaleidoscope of students and their reinvigorated passions and talents banded together to form a new kind of team – an academically eclectic mix of inspired underdogs with laser-focus and an appetite to go the distance.

Beyond Winning or Losing

Besides maybe Dolph Lundgren’s iconic performance as steroid-strengthened Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, the original ROCKY sits at the proverbial mountaintop, maintaining its universal appeal heavily due to the film’s authentic ending. The reality in that film, as well as in any classroom, is that winning ultimately takes a backseat to the power of the journey itself. Balboa’s inability to capture the title means very little compared to his affirmed ability to take punishing hits and keep moving forward. This ideology beckons Serena Williams’ admission that losing actually motivates us further. And don’t take my word for it – ask any millennial or centennial gamer: the reward of completing the latest Call of Duty mission fails in comparison to the learn, unlearn, relearn process of mastering the game.

Or, maybe its author Rory Sutherland’s plea that we give more attention to “psychological solutions” than to our historically-focused “technical-engineering solutions” (learn about the power of perception here). This certainly stands to reason in the tumultuous landscape of education, where too often we rely solely on the arrival of the next-big-thing, from gadgets to legislation. In the end, it’s the global shift of empowerment that is driving a new breed of student. Today’s Centennials don’t have to be told they’re unique – their Instagram does a fine job of that – and they expect their feedback to come as quickly as their Snapchat goes. More importantly the Centennial mindset lends itself to a practical intelligence, one that would have them see their learning directly correlate to their unique success, which, in turn, strengthens the team’s overall success, as Centennials and their penchant for equity and diversity remind us that a Rising Tide Truly Lifts ALL Boats.

For more information on the Competitive Teaching Model, peruse my dissertation here.

Watch my TED Talk everyone is buzzing about here.

16 thoughts on “Teachers, have you discovered the power of the Competitive Teaching Model?

  1. Ryan,

    I love the way you are putting hope into these students’ academic lives! There is such great power in making the first steps accessible and putting students at the center of a great story.

    Thanks for sharing this post today!


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ryan, I think you are on to something big here. The negative aspect of competition within a school culture is hovering over my head like a cloud. At the same time, iron REALLY DOES sharpen iron. There is a level of accountability in which peers can provide for each other that no administrator could dare match…given the right climate and culture! It begins with the lead learner establishing the expectation and mindset that we will all think of kids first, and will ALL question when we witness the opposite. We should challenge one another in a healthy manner in order for everyone to step up to the plate. Truthfully, we can never do too much to support kids and families. They deserve our minds to be disrupted in order to gain perspective on how to improve for THEIR sake. Some teachers automatically compete with themselves, but all need to find ways to respectfully challenge their peers and administrative team on their thinking and status. Do we ever need to accept our status quo, or should we always be looking for ways to WIN? Winning means saving kids. Winning means paving paths for future stories to birth. Healthy competition brings about learning…from success, from failure, from perseverance, from criticism.
    I am intrigued to say the least! You are a wavemaker. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. These statements are profound:
    “No longer was competition solely for the athletic or artistically gifted. Now, a kaleidoscope of students and their reinvigorated passions and talents banded together to form a new kind of team – an academically eclectic mix of inspired underdogs with laser-focus and an appetite to go the distance.”

    When educators understand the complexity of the students in their classroom, they can begin to make changes to meet this challenge!

    I would love to see some examples for a teacher to self-asses themselves if they are in this mindset. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dr. Gupta: I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with what Rory Sutherland refers to as “Psychological Solutions” and the impact of this approach in conjunction with other more traditional methods, albeit with a modern spin.

      Although dissertations can be tough to chew, I include a significant amount of anecdotal insight in my chapter three.

      Thanks for the dialogue.


      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post Ryan.
    Your students have been forever changed by this experience.
    Dr. Barry Harris told us Thursday at #cmk15 that teachers should allow their students to feel a little bit put down so that they can feel “I’ll show HIM”.
    Sounds like the same phenomenon at work.
    Here’s my question: What happens when a class loses a competition like this? When winning is important, how is losing perceived?
    How do you handle that end of the competition?
    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cynthia: Thanks for the input and feedback! Losing can STING, no getting around it, but a growth-mindset reframes “losing” as an opportunity to gain strength from our failures. Besides the innate desire to “get back on the saddle” and retry, suffering the sting of losing, under the right leadership, can recalibrate our efforts and focus, advancing us towards what Nassim Taleb calls Antifragility — literally getting stronger because of failure.

      Thus, although a win-lose scenario is the perceived outcome, the Competitive Teaching Model ironically promotes Covey’s coveted Win-Win — due to the psychological solution.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It is a joy to read about your experience with tapping in to an effective strategy for your students. Your passion and dedication are palpable as you describe how the “underdog” mentality has resonated with your students and motivated them to “compete”–not just against the other classes, but hopefully against themselves. The desire to improve and succeed and learn from losses/mistakes is indeed a powerful force. Your students are fortunate to have you coaching them toward victory! I enjoyed learning from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mindy! You hit the nail on the head: so much of life is leading and competing/bettering ourselves — the Competitive Teaching Model embraces this indelible truth by asking students to set goals then advance towards meeting and exceeding them.

      Thanks for your input and affirmation!


  6. Ryan … great post and intense TEDx talk! Thanks for sharing.

    I appreciate your passion, vision, and work that you do day-to-day.

    So much gold in the post and video.

    I appreciate your focus on a few things:
    1) when students perceive their teacher as empathetic and caring they feel like they belong (in the school) and achievement soars … I also love the rally around the “underdog” idea to also foster community.
    2) quick formative feedback … we all want to know the answer to the questions “How am I performing?” and “How do I improve?” Quick and useful formative feedback answers these questions.
    3) a desire to win … Now that a student feels a sense of belonging and understands their performance/how to improve … students can rally even more together to “compete” and beat the class down the hall. Student achievement soars again!

    Ryan … good for you to fight past the toxicity of a complaining culture. I am currently working on a morning devotional about thanksgiving and I am all too sensitive to my own tendency to complain as well as others complaining.

    Stay focused and solution oriented!

    I read the entire blog post and watched 9 mins of your talk … I will finish later.

    I do have one question I’m interested in – what impact did you see on the students that “lost” a given competition. Were you able to develop in them a growth mindset like Serena so they could see any obstacle as a way to get better, stronger, more focused?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the true value of this competition is that it is achievable. So often students get focused on one-sided competitions where one team is way ahead of the other. For example, soccer fans would be bored and tune out if Reading were 3 goals down against Manchester United in the 30th minute. The brilliance is when the competition is against a self-determined goal.

    I know others have reiterated this same point, but I find it so crucial it deserves repeating.

    Thank you, Mr Jackson, for your service and insight.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great article. The teens today are being raised by the first generation of parents that were raised in an American culture that scoffed at competition, praised sameness and valued mediocrity. The generation that required every child to receive a trophy for showing up to at least a few games, a generation that demanded every classmate be invited to every birthday party and a generation who learned in a classroom that taught to the lowest performing students as not to leave anyone behind.

    For some, competition acts as a spark, igniting innovation, inquiry and academic performance. For others the reintroduction of healthy competition is “too much work” as students have been spoon feed every educational output their whole academic career. They have need felt the exhilaration of earned achievement.

    Young people are smart- they know they don’t have to do much to get what they need. To define the purpose of education in the most simplistic way, is to increase the chances of survival. I’m not advocating a sort of Hunger Games style of schooling but more competition sounds good to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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