Compete or collaborate: what is better for learning?


The Queen song We are the champions captures the options that competition offers: either you are the winner who achieves everything desirable or you are the loser who does not enjoy anyone’s sympathy. The question we must ask ourselves is whether the concept of competitiveness should be adapted or complemented in learning models to achieve better results in our society.

Competitiveness is a human trait analyzed centuries ago by the English naturalist Charles Darwin , who observed how human society is characterized by struggle, hostility and unbridled competition.

But the researcher later qualified these statements , adding:

“As important as the struggle for existence has been and continues to be, as far as the highest part of human nature is concerned, there are other more important factors. For moral qualities advance (…) much more as a result of habit, rational power, instruction, religion, etc. than by natural selection.”

Darwin identifies the individual’s competition for adaptation as something instinctive, since the only project that animates him is his own survival.

Social Darwinism and cultural awareness

The concepts of social Darwinism are part of the cultural consciousness of our society. They begin their development in the family, school, sports environments and universities, but in the professional field is where they reach their splendor. American millionaire John Rockefeller  stated that “the growth of a major business is nothing more than the survival of the fittest.”

Later developments of Darwin’s thesis generated libertarian Darwinism , which establishes that the possibility of survival of living beings increases to the extent that they adapt harmoniously to each other and to their environment.

Following this line, the Russian geographer Pyotr Kropotkin argued that sociability is the key mechanism in evolution. The species that have a higher degree of cooperation are those that have more opportunities to survive, by replacing the mechanism of competition.

The next relevant contribution is the theory of cooperation . This theory postulates that cooperation can evolve from small groups based on the principle of reciprocity and that the importance of the reciprocity strategy is given by the success it shows with respect to other strategies. It also suggests that cooperation based on reciprocity can prevail over more competitive strategies.

Definition of competitiveness

Personal competitiveness or self-demand – that is, competing with oneself – allows us to maximize the possibilities for personal, professional, social and moral fulfillment.

But while self-demand refers to the internal motivation to continually improve and achieve personal goals, competitiveness with others is “the strong desire to be more successful than others” or “an act of seeking to win or achieve what others also pursue.” , as defined by anthropologist Margaret Mead .

Impact of competitiveness on students

Competitiveness among students can motivate them, but it can also generate unnecessary pressure and negative feelings, affecting self-esteem and emotional well-being . One of the factors that most generate competitive attitudes in children is the thought that they should not collaborate, but compete to surpass other students. This behavior occurs due to factors such as individualism and pressure from the family environment .

Some experiments have documented that women tend to respond less favorably to competitiveness than men, performing worse than men in competitive environments even when they perform equally well in non-competitive environments.

It is undeniable that competitiveness allows us to achieve new challenges and objectives that help society evolve. Competing with oneself or with others can make talent flourish, make us more adaptable and result-oriented.

Competitiveness and collaboration in education

Success, understood as achieving the desired goal, is within the reach of anyone. To achieve this, mental skills are needed such as the ability to set objectives, the search for continuous improvement and the ability to manage failures.

However, it is necessary to understand that we have evolved as a species also through the mechanisms of cooperation. The reciprocity that promotes cooperation, in contrast to competitiveness, serves to help oneself and others.

Collaboration, which stimulates the development of empathy, self-esteem and creative thinking, contributes to the formation of a critical spirit and the desire to learn. Cooperation ensures that execution is effective, efficient and orderly.

Therefore, the two concepts (competitiveness and collaboration), far from being exclusive, help to understand the characteristics of human nature. It is necessary to be able to include both from the first levels of education so that they can be applied in the professional world and thus develop a better model of society.

Constructive competitiveness improves students’ abilities, develops their ambitions and encourages their learning. Educational models should encourage this constructive competitiveness while complementing it with collaborative practices that facilitate decision-making processes and foster constructive competition. Combining both mechanisms when educating children and young people will help them develop their full potential.

Paraphrasing Margaret Mead :

“We must create new models so that adults can teach their children not what they should learn but how they should do it.”

Author Bio: Gustavo Porporato Daher is Professor of Financial Economics and Accounting at the Autonomous University of Madrid