Who really wins?

When I think back on my education, there are a lot of things that I think I did wrong. This might come as a surprise to my family and friends who have always considered me to be a good student. There is no doubt I was a high achiever, and my academic success has certainly served me well in my life. My regret, though, has to do with my mindset.

What I remember most from my early school years is an intense focus on academic performance. I was always competing with other students and with myself. I remember feeling humiliated when my third grade teacher called out errors I made on a writing assignment, and I remember the pride at having my name on the top of the reading chart on the wall for the whole year in fourth grade. I was insanely jealous of a fifth grade classmate who was recognized for having the highest percentage in math class and vowed that it would be me the next quarter. From these and many other memories, I am sure I had a fixed mindset and wanted nothing more than to prove to everyone how smart I was.

As I progressed into higher grade levels, I got very good at what researchers like Denise Clark Pope call “doing school.” I excelled inside and outside of the classroom and checked all the boxes to get into college. It wasn’t until halfway through my undergrad years that I began to question my approach. I realized that I wasn’t as passionate as many of my classmates about what I was actually learning. Instead, I was coasting by in my courses, doing the minimum required to get the A and keep up the image of success.

What I really wish is that someone would have stopped me along the way and told me the truth: that school is not a game or a competition to win. I wish I would have learned to love learning for the sake of learning and not for some external award or recognition. Maybe then I would actually remember what I learned instead of forgetting it immediately after the test. Maybe I would have studied things that interested me more than just choosing assignments and classes that I knew I could ace. I can only imagine how much of a difference this could have made in my life.

Unfortunately, schools continue to be places where we encourage competition and academic performance. Too often, achievement is prized above learning and growth, and practices like honor rolls and class rankings perpetuate the idea that school is something that can be won. My current research on how students experience academic competition in high schools reveals that competitive classroom environments contribute to student stress and anxiety while fostering a performance goal orientation towards learning, especially in high achieving students. I believe teachers can mitigate the negative consequences of schooling by limiting competition in their classrooms and explicitly teaching about mindsets and the purpose of schooling.

It’s not about winning or losing. We all can win if we learn to love learning.

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