Can cooperative learning bring out the best in your children?

Does competition bring out the ‘beast in us’?

Which do you think is more effective: cooperation or competition? Despite our culture’s leanings towards competition, hundreds of studies over the past century have shown that collaboration and cooperative learning bring out the best in individuals and groups. Research has demonstrated that competition tends to bring out the “beast in us”, whether you are talking about students, professional athletes, or business people. Yet the competition vs cooperation battle rages on.

In schools, the relationship between students is at least as important as that between student and teacher when it comes to achievement and fulfillment. In fact, cooperative learning is superior to both competitive and individual learning. Research by Johnson and Johnson found many benefits of cooperative learning: higher academic achievement and greater productivity, more caring, supportive, and committed relationships, and greater psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem. Students become more actively engaged in their learning, become more generous, and feel a greater acceptance of peers who are different from them. What’s not to like about that?

In my Strong Girls Strong World school program, I like to challenge girls with a game to see who in their class can make the most free throws in 30 seconds. They always do it the first time competitively, with very little teamwork or support. The result is one winner, and most of the group feels pretty blasé about the experience. I have them do it again with only one difference: I switch the intention from ‘who can be the best’ to ‘making sure everyone on their team is wildly successful’. The girls brainstorm how they would do the game different with an intention of cooperation, and they then proceed to blow away their collective score from the initial trial. More importantly, the energy in the room is electric, with lots of encouragement and squeals of laughter.

Cooperation breeds connection

It’s one thing to tell kids to cooperate; it’s way more valuable for them to experience the difference between working to be the best vs. working to be the best you can be as well as caring about your teammates. In his book, Finding Your Element, Ken Robinson reported on a unique music program in Venezuela called El Sistema. This program has an intention that an orchestra can become a community that accomplishes much more together than its members ever could alone. Being part of El Sistema helps the students think differently about themselves and the world around them, opening them up to greater creativity, compassion, and hope for their future. The focus on the whole community has made all the difference in the world for those students.

Balance your child’s competitive activities with collaborative ones with a higher-level purpose than winning and being #1. The authors of the book The Athena Doctrine discovered that people all around the world feel that more ‘feminine traits’ of leadership correlated more strongly with making the world a better place: collaboration and sharing credit, connectedness, win-win mentality, compassion, and being more community-oriented. Redirecting our focus from competition to cooperation is better for our children, their schools, and the world.



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