Making the case for competition

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Educators everywhere are celebrating because it’s finally March – which means a couple of different things: spring’s promise of better weather and new beginnings, as well as the fanatical fervor of college basketball’s March Madness. Since March’s weather matches the temper of your building’s copier, let’s instead focus on the latter and the excitement those blank NCAA brackets bring.

It’s a safe assumption everyone reading this has at one point in their life partaken in the watercooler-fueled competitive March Madness bracket buster pool. Maybe you’re a pro, a legitimate college sports couch analyst submitting countless variations of your nuanced brackets to Or, maybe you simply succumbed to the allure of joining your friends and co-workers in your school’s $5 shenanigans pool and were hooked once your Cinderella underdog clawed its way to the Sweet sixteen. Either way, the impact of your involvement affects the brain similarly:

  1. Your dopamine spikes as you highlight each of your wins
  2. Your sense of status skyrockets as you edge-out competitors
  3. Your sense of belonging surges as the pool becomes the talk of your building
  4. Your need to satisfy our innate desire to survive is quenched
  5. Your focus sharpens as your engagement grows with each round

What at face-value seems to amount to little more than just random picks and a bit of harmless fun is in fact a melting pot of brain-based, needs-satisfying psychology. Thus, the idea of March Madness fervor parallels perfectly to the impact of non-threatening competition in schools, where the five effects listed above combine to create a culture of passion and goal-setting – resulting at the very least in student engagement and at its pinnacle student empowerment.

Paging Mr. Pink

I’m a big Daniel Pink fan. His ideas on motivation and our insatiable appetite for autonomy, purpose and mastery have helped shape my leadership style while also vetting my Competitive Teaching Model (Discover its power here). Creating a culture of healthy competition aligns with Pink’s BIG three, ultimately motivating students to be their best while inspiring the group as a whole to collectively reach for new heights.

Matt programming drone
The CTM hardwires student engagement!

Autonomy through the lens of a competitive teaching model empowers students to set goals, devise a plan, analyze progress and fine-tune after feedback. Ownership and control now rest squarely in the hands of the student. With more and more teachers beginning to “hold students able” instead of merely accountable, shifting our perception as we presume positive intent, genuine autonomy now transfers to measured success. As students meet and exceed goals, set and conquer challenges, the brain rewiring weaves electromagnetic magic as dopamine traverses neurons – sending positive message after positive message. It’s one thing to instill passion in students – the Competitive Teaching Model literally hardwires it!

Purpose can confound the most focused student. The key is creating a transparent culture where students can clearly see the impact of their role on both personal and team success. This is where Pink and Maslow high-five each other, as crystalizing a student’s purpose solidifies his or her perceived sense of belonging, which is a major personal and professional hurdle for those on the road to self-actualization (mastery). How big is that for a student, though? Helping students not only realize their true potential but correlating their unique role to the team’s outcome, while simultaneously embedding empathy practices that help students identify and relate with the roles of their teammates. The Competitive Teaching Model is now hardwiring success skills!

Mastery can’t be rushed and for the majority of us it certainly doesn’t come over night. Thankfully our intrinsic curiosity and innate desire to win (evolved from our primordial instinct to survive) motivates us to chase mastery – driving harder, headlong into tumultuous surf, grasping for what’s just beyond our fingertips. Often times we’re competing against ourselves, and anyone who’s ever attempted a strict diet or workout regimen knows that daily personal goals are simple: be better than yesterday. This intrapersonal goal-setting sharpens our skillsets and talents, which allows for greater success when we compete against others, whereupon we now include status, belonging and engagement – synthesized respectively into a hardworking, goal-setting, driven individual.

Brain Rules of Engagement

If you’re anything like me, you fell out of love with math in middle school. Before that I quite enjoyed the subject, especially days we’d compete at the front of the class feverishly working through multi-step subtraction problems while my friends cheered me on in the background. If the new buzz in education is to inspire passion in students, I’d love to have a snapshot of just one of those board races – my face inches from the board, left hand covered in chalk, sneaking peaks to my right to see how my competition was doing. Meanwhile, students behind me couldn’t contain their excitement as they rooted-on their favorite mathematicians with fist-pumps and cheers. This was passion personified.

A year later I “hated” math.

So how do we inject the spirit of something as simple as elementary math races into a 21st century curriculum? The answer could be as simple yet profound as Reading. Yes, you read that right, and, yes, I realize that passion and reading aren’t the first two words that come to mind when you think of igniting a culture of engaged students. However, that was the case this past fall when Maplewood High School hosted its first-ever Read-A-Thon, where close to 50 students holed-up in our library after school – on a Friday – and competed to see who had greater reading stamina. Our English Department knew they had a heavy chore on their hands when they decided last summer to commit to creating a culture of reading in one of the poorest high schools in Nashville, TN.

Reading marathon
Students compete on reading stamina!

Teachers laid the groundwork by promoting student-choice reading, allowing all students to self-select novels they’d be reading during class time and for homework. Once the foundation was set, the teachers positioned the Read-A-Thon as a no-holds-barred, survival of the fittest Reading Rumble. Each hour prizes were distributed for students who continued to turn pages. By 9:30PM it was clear the more than 20 students that still remained were in this competition for the long haul, refusing to be outlasted, out read by any would-be bibliophiles; By 10:30PM we declared approximately 20 students WINNERS of the Read-A-Thon. These 20 students only represent a fraction of our student body yet their participation and commitment to something as atypical as competitive reading has helped propel our reading culture to its next phase: Reading Rebels.

Our Reading Rebel attitude manifests itself this spring as we are now challenging other schools across Metro Nashville Public Schools in a first-ever district Read-A-Thon hosted by Maplewood High School. This coming April schools across the city will connect via Google Hangout and compete to see which school has the most committed readers. Participation is all-inclusive with students from every grade and ability-level encouraged to carry their school’s flag with each page they turn, each chapter they close, each book they finish.

For Maplewood High School, every school day is now framed as a chance to train as we prepare for the upcoming Reading Rumble, with students committed to a shared goal: Increase our reading stamina so we can claim victory against our Reading Rumble rivals! Whether you’re filling out a NCAA bracket or selecting books for a Read-A-Thon, the brain’s willingness to compete serves as an intrinsic motivator. The Competitive Teaching Model plays to this brain-based advantage, amplifying a sense of belonging in students and faculty while clarifying our purpose and preparing us for mastery.

As usual, I’ll be rooting for the underdogs!

2 thoughts on “Making the case for competition

  1. Ryan, you’ve reconfirmed your “Competitive Teaching Model” and have shown that through challenge students will and can perform above the expectation…bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Dr. Jackson,
    I stumbled across your topic on a TED Talk and was immediately interested in what you had to say. I am happy to see there are other educators who share this philosophy with me. I am new to the teaching game but would be interested in asking you further questions if you have time

    From Matthew Winkler


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