Can Competition and Collaboration Co-exist?

Is true collaboration possible in a competitive environment?rolling

I recall a rush of articles about the American Business Model decades ago
asserting that though the foundation of capitalism was competition, as our world went global, Americans needed to examine a new model: cooperation, collaboration.

Group work? Seriously? Sure, we learned in Apollo 13 that a small group of men collaborated with an inner tube, a box and some toothpaste to bring home a space capsule of Americans. . .but how often do we really need to do that?

Group work over individual accomplishments has gone in and out of fashion in the classroom far longer than businesses have attempted it, because it cuts the grading work load by half for teachers, (though we slyly argued that it helped in student engagement, and we quoted all the business magazines about the futuristic wave of collaboration.) However, Americans notoriously have a love-hate relationship with group work; we all know that one person seems to get the brunt of the work, others resent feeling unheard by control freaks, and still others exploit riding on the backs of the workhorses. This has been sticky enough-uncomfortable and unnatural to our competitive roots-so much so that whole businesses have developed just to cash in on ridding us of our ignorance of how to behave productively in group-work situations.

And when that fails, group work in schools is discouraged, considered unfair, even sometimes called lazy. There was a point as recently as ten years ago when my own school made group work against the rules, simply because of potential law suits in “truth in grading.” (Read, Parent A didn’t want Parent B’s kid to affect or benefit from Parent A’s kid’s work/grade.) So out the door group work flew. Slowly as power changed hands in my school, people forgot it was against the rules, and it became again de rigueur, to the point where it is now the trend, not just in the classroom, but in the conference rooms among teachers, across the nation.

The American redesigned business model has finally filtered into the mandates (not just the personal preferences) of our teachers’ work lives. Instead of working in isolation, building our lessons from books, online sites, and our own creativity, we are encouraged to, in some cases forced to, meet with our colleagues and plan, even submit, lessons together on often a weekly basis.

By now, however, I question in a different way those articles of years ago: can competition and collaboration thrive together? Sure athletes can be friends with those against whom they compete, partly due to admiration, partly due to common burden, but they rarely will share their secrets to success if it means the opponent has an edge over them. Think of what the NFL goes through to make sure the opposition doesn’t get hold of their play-books. Omaha! Omaha! Omaha! Indeed.

In the education setting however, we are forced to collaborate, but then often we are held in competition. Teacher of the year? Teacher of the month? Teacher who gets verbal accolades of any kind. Those things alone might not slow us from sharing. . .but a fan base of students might. Or far worse, a conniving powerful administrator.

I have sat in collaboration groups where Teacher So and So is held up as superior. . .”The rest of you should be more like him. . .” He is notorious for not playing well with others; he balks at collaboration; he shoots holes in other people’s ideas vocally, cruelly. Okay, how much of that is arrogance?

And how much of that is trying to keep more of the praise spotlight for himself?competition

The same conniving administrator, whose job depends on students’ scores, likes to pit teachers against each other, making it seem like a friendly competition to see whose state mandated test scores will be higher. (Then administrator rewards winner with smaller class sizes, the room with a window, the course everyone covets teaching. Puppy-treats to teachers.). So then. . . why would teachers share lessons with each other if this comparison results in honor or rewards from winning? (Wouldn’t that be like Microsoft passing along tech ideas to Apple?) Recently, when someone noted how different a colleague and I are in style, I heard from conniving administrator: “Ewwww. I can’t wait to compare your AP scores. . .it will be exciting to see whose are higher.” Does this encourage my colleague to help MY students do their best?

In one weekly “team”, members were once told that another teacher, let’s call her Ms. CheaterButt, had the lowest failure rate (as in zero kids ever fail her classes; we collaborators all know she just passes kids because she doesn’t believe 9th graders should fail, even students with a 27 average days before grades are due suddenly pops out with a 70.) Then we heard we have to sit there and learn “from her” how to design our lessons because she beat us at some unseen competition called “failure rate rally race.” Again, we would have, at one point, happily shown her how to design her lessons so that she doesn’t just have to arbitrarily pass her students, and we certainly don’t want to take any of her lessons. But we won’t now. Instead, we resentfully sit quietly on top of our knowledge. . .while conniving administrator sings CheaterButt’s praises. This particular collaboration group got so competitive that the only time people shared any novel, effective ideas at the weekly meetings was when the conniving administrator occasionally appeared; suddenly we were cutting each other off at the feet to dazzle our boss.

I admit it: I am sometimes guilty of not wanting to share simply because I like being my kids’ favorite teacher. I am a natural competitor. I like having lessons students both enjoy and learn from, and yes, then silently lording it over my pals when kids want me, not them, for a teacher. Who doesn’t. This is probably the same as an actor winning the People’s Choice Award. But the trouble is, this attitude isn’t good for students. Yes, it motivates me to come up with good plans. But it keeps many of us from wanting to share lessons. I force myself to ignore my inner emotional beast because. . .well. . .it is the right thing to do. I have friends with whom I collaborate nicely, and I always have, even before it was fashionable; and I am always open to sharing with anyone, competitors and cheaters alike. But even then, the open ranking of my being “better” can cause people not to want share with me, or even hear my ideas (Oh, she thinks she is such hot shit. . .) Competition when it comes to collaboration does not necessarily lead to mature thinking. . .

In one of those popular American Business Model articles of years past, there was a story of an American Technology Company that had opened a location in Japan, hiring some of the brightest, most innovative people in the country. They were hoping to have fresh ideas, growth, etc.. The employees were set up in groups, departments, teams as they saw themselves. The company started a program, where individual employees could suggest ideas for improvement, cutting costs, enhancing productivity, design ideas. The single employee who suggested that month’s best idea, would win a dinner to a local restaurant. Months went by with not one idea in the box. The company repeatedly upped the stakes, even offering a weekend trip away, to no avail. NO ideas. Where were these Japanese brains, the American owners wondered.

Eventually the American manager heading the idea box pulled one of the Japanese managers aside and asked for his opinion. What he found was that competition among individuals of a team was considered bad form, dare I say dishonorable. To take an idea for improvement, to call it your own, to lay claim to the individual rewards was an insult to your team members, since very few of us work in a vacuum. This concept of pitting fellow employees against each other was distasteful, and went against the sense of community and family that was traditional in Japan. As soon as the company began rewarding teams, departments for successful ideas, the box was full of innovative ideas.

The lesson learned here has filtered to some of the most successful American companies today: Apple, Google, Ford, even Starbuck’s. They have all embraced collaborative thinking, and team reward to obvious results.

collabThis sticks with me as I continue to be forced to collaborate under the rule of a competition loving boss. Are children benefiting from such open individual comparisons between teachers? Is it really good for me to be Teacher-of-the-Year, “Most Inspirational Teacher”, or will it cause my peers to withhold their successful lessons from me, and thus my students. . .? Yes, I hate group work for the same reasons everyone else does: I sometimes end up writing more than my share of documents, or doing more research than others, but collaboration isn’t group work exactly. It’s idea firing. It’s sharing of what works, what can be improved. If honors, awards, titles, and even Pay-for-performance falls to individual comparisons between teachers, who will ever want to pass along effective plans? Only those with children’s best interests at heart. I’d like that to be every teacher, but it is unlikely.