Is it time for competition to take a backseat in STEM education?

  • CoderDojo Foundation

    I was reading this article which examines the pros and cons of utilising competition as a strategy for channeling STEM enthusiasm and encouraging young people to challenge themselves and I was wondering how do Champions and Mentors in the CoderDojo Community recognise and reward young people for their ideas and projects in alternative ways?

    I’ve read about gamification, not only as a pedagogy strategy to encourage youth learning, but also a way to motivate yourself in your work, hobbies and any area of your life you want to develop more (see Eric Barkers book ‘Barking up the wrong tree’ for more on that). Basically focusing on the idea of small rewards often (or even the perception of a reward) being a positive motivator.

    In terms of how a Dojo event is perceived, here too competition has an impact. CoderDojo Scotland noted in their research (which informed our own ‘Empowering the Future’ Guide (page 13-14) as part of the CoderDojo Girls Initiative) that girls were much less likely to attend events which were presented or described in a way which makes it sound like a contest (e.g. with terms like ‘the best’, ‘winning’). Or if the description implies that the session involves being compared to others, as opposed to comparing and discussing ideas or approaches to a problem.

    Feedback from the community highlighting how focusing on competition (as the article I first mentioned notes) can “create anxiety, irritability and feelings of overwhelm or frustration” was a significant reason behind us reframing our annual event CoderDojo Coolest Projects, not as a competition or awards, which might discourage those less confident in their project ideas from participating, but simply as Coolest Projects. Which while still rewarding young peoples creativity, focuses on being a fun event where young people can see awesome things other young people just like them have made, share their own ideas, while making new friends and getting inspiration and further motivation.

    So what do you think? And how does this work in an informal setting like a Dojo?

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  • I like the approach to Coolest Projects. And from the media I’ve seen, I wish I could take my entire dojo to Dublin to experience it. An event like that can be so energizing and motivating to students and volunteers. I imagine it is similar to an FLL Jr. Expo - no winners, just an expo, and those kids are so pumped after the event!

    While we do not have a similar Coolest Projects event in the US, our dojo does run a year-end session where the students of all ages present their projects to the dojo attendees. It works well, even for those students who may not have created an app from scratch but are still proud that they created something from the tutorials or sushi cards or remixed scratch projects.

    I have looked for coding competitions as the request of some parents, but found none so far that appear to be worthwhile.

    We have experience with other STEM competitions like FLL and CyberPatriot and MATHCOUNTS. Each has pros and cons. CyberPatriot in particular has a good gamification-competition experience. But for FLL and MATHCOUNTS I find that we deemphasize winning and emphasizing the learning and experience. Why? Several reasons. (1) Chances of winning can be dependent on the mentors, but we are just lucky to have parent volunteers at all (2) We see FLL teams where it is obvious the parents have inserted themselves too far to win, impacting the student’s experience (3) judging at FIRST can be like judging figure skating - was one really better than the other? (4) winning is not the motivator for most to stay with these STEM programs - it is enjoying the culture and environment that we create every Thursday night. Now, with the right coach and set of students, winning as a goal can be a good thing. But it isn’t the primary focus of what we do for all our students.

  • Nuala,

    Let me step up and add my whole hearted agreement.

    Obviously there are two sides to this question:
    One view suggests a competitive environment encourages the student to “stretch themselves”.

    The other, (and the one I support), suggests that the group be given a problem, (or a list of problems), to solve and let each participant try to solve the problem in whatever way they can.

    I like this for a multitude of reasons:

    1. The absence of “winners” and “losers” encourages everyone to participate, even if they can’t tell the difference between a dog-bite and a binary byte. Everyone started by staring at the keyboard wondering “what the heck do I do now?!” at one time or another.

    2. Encouraging people to try to solve a problem - and pick their own solution - can have wonderfully magical results. I’ve seen some remarkably elegant and imaginative solutions come out of efforts like this.

    3. Presenting a task as a problem to be solved also encourages collaborative effort. The ability to collaborate and contribute to a group effort is an essential life-skill, especially in technology and computing.

    4. A corollary to #1 is the fact that many individuals, (including myself), shy away from purely competitive events of any kind. Nuala’s excellent post mentions the fact that many people, (regardless of age), function better in a collaborative environment than in a competitive one.

    5. This kind of event allows the true stars to float to the surface instead of the punters and wannabees who would try to game the system in a competition.

    I could go on, but I personally believe that a non-competitive environment is to be preferred on a number of levels.

    What say ye?

    Jim “JR”

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