Winning Isn’t That Great and Losing Isn’t That Bad

Jul 24

Thanks to Chris Layton for inspiring this post. We had a lovely conversation at #DENSI2014 and this is my reflection from that discussion.


The conversations and ideas around these ideas and their role in society can make your head spin. They range from:

“Awards for students are harmful”
“Learning is not a competition”
“There are no losers in learning”
“Stop gamifying learning”

To:

“Kids need to learn to lose”
“Failure is not an option”
“Embrace failure”
“How can we gamify school?”

Depending on the context, I might agree with all of them. The problem of course is our constant need to simply and fit our beliefs onto bumper stickers or tweets. Nuance is often challenging, complex, messy and worth multiple conversations.

For the most part I think competition is a good thing. At its core it’s about challenging yourself, sometimes against yourself, sometimes against others. But society’s obsession with winning and losing is the problem.

In general, learning to win and lose is important. Let’s detach this concept from formal competition and consider the idea of competition as both external and internal battles. Competing against yourself is something we all do. Whether it’s in a silly game on your phone or for me, my golf game. Being reflective allows me to consider the things I do well and the things I need to improve upon. Being able to do this in private on occasion is really important. The value of competing against others is not simply in comparing ourselves but to see first hand how others approach the same challenge. This opportunity is often lost because the focus is on the result much more than the process.

One problem with the debate over the significance of competition is that we’ve both glorified winning and demonized losing. Songs are written and movies are made to celebrate and make icons out of winners. Losers are either ignored or shamed. This mentality influences the way most of us think of competition.

People who want to give every kid a trophy and award often do so to protect kids from the negative experience of losing. As a result it continues to suggest losing is bad and we should avoid it at all costs.

Those that want to turn everything into a competition often do so because they’ve experienced the perks of winning and want it for their own. Survival of the fittest is a concept supported by the fit. They’ve tasted the thrill of victory and I’d suggest often felt superior because others aren’t as successful as they are.

I’ve experience winning and losing everyday. Not everything is a competition but everything can be a learning experience. Sometimes the result is easily measured and lends itself to comparison against others or myself. Sometimes it’s an event or experience that has nothing to do with competing. Either way, It doesn’t matter to me.  Both are learning opportunities. Winning is nice, but it doesn’t define me. Neither does losing. Learning and growth is what’s important. That can happen in all contexts.

Anytime we use exemplars in the learning context we are creating a competitive environment. Hopefully the focus is on how we will compete against ourselves and yet knowing how others are doing should be a useful part. Even a celebration of those who achieve can be seen as a nice recognition. Those who come up short comparatively should learn how to celebrate with others and reflect. This is something adults need to model for children.

So perhaps one way to resolve this issue is to acknowledge that winning and losing is part of life. We need to explicitly teach how to win and win graciously and how to lose with dignity. Neither should define you. I like keeping score and I like data but I’m able to analysis it and consider how it might or might not be used to improve. Some data and scores are more meaningful than others. Some people obsess over every win and loss. That’s a recipe for insanity.

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