Birbalsingh and competition within the classroom

Is letting students know their grades and their position in relation to peers a good idea?

This week Katharine Birbalsingh gave the 5th Sir John Cass Foundation Lecture. The lecture was titled ‘Is the English Education System Broken?’ and she returned to common themes she has developed in her blog for the Daily Telegraph.  The Guardian printed an edited extract of the lecture and this piece is based solely on that text (I was not present at the lecture).

Central to Birbalsingh’s argument is the concept of competition between pupils.  She would like students to be competing to score the highest grades and also for them to know at just about every point, where they stand in relation to their peers. Here are two paragraphs to illustrate that point

The tradition of competition which we celebrate in sport has become unfashionable in the classroom. Now innovation requires that children never be given grades, and never be allowed to know where they stand in comparison to their peers.

The truth is that allowing children to win and lose naturally stimulates their desire to succeed and motivates them to try harder. Killing motivation and aspiration encourages bad behaviour in children, and this is why we have constant chaos in some of our classrooms.

The mention of constant chaos is slipped in here adroitly, despite the fact that Birbalsingh has now been out of the classroom for some time. She *could* be right about the chaos, but surely some kind of evidence would be useful to back up her case?  Birbalsingh is keen to paint a picture of classrooms in chaos, or rather classrooms in state schools in chaos, so she can offer up the antidote in the form of free schools with perfect discipline and a clear focus on standards. Just as worrying are the words she uses to introduce these ideas ‘The truth is that…’.  These are confident words for a policy as bold as letting some students know they are top of the class, and by the same logic letting others know they are bottom. And anyone who has had any involvement with education will know that pedagogy is a complex business, and words like truth, although aspirational, are best used with caution. Teaching and learning is a messy business, it’s not like solving quadratic equations or naming the capital of France.

Again we should ask whether there is any evidence that the situation in classrooms where students never know their grades is as black and white as Birbalsingh argues.  I would wager that some teachers do let students know how they are doing and students are very good at picking up on extra cues and working out where in the academic pecking order they are. Indeed there is evidence that this kind of tacit competition is common in classrooms. The idea that classrooms are in uproar because students never know what progress they are making is a crude generalisation, the first of a whole army of straw-men dancing in the stiff breeze of Birbalsingh’s ungrounded prose.  But those objections aside, the strategy is clear enough here; teachers should post frequent scores within a class letting every student know what their score is, make these available to the whole class and rank them in order from top to bottom. Some will come top, some will come in the middle and some will come at the bottom.

This set me to thinking. If this was such a sure-fire policy to not only raise standards, but also calm the chaos in the classroom, surely there would be some research evidence to support this. It is surely unthinkable that such an effective strategy has not been researched and its merits reported in a series of peer reviewed articles.  So off I went to the library (well the online e-journal repositories).  I was not overwhelmed with articles on competition within the classroom, as most articles were about competition between schools, but I did find 3 which are of interest. I spent about 30 minutes searching and reviewing the articles, which is not a long time to research something this complex, but it is 30 minutes longer than Birbalsingh spent evaluating the evidence before writing her lecture. Unfortunately the articles are behind paywalls but I have done by best to review them objectively.

The first article was American, based on an interview with 47 black high school students (Bergin and Crooks). They were interviewed about how they competed in class to raise their grades (the GPA). This article was initially very favourable to Birbalsingh. The students did compete with each other, often selecting peers who were around their ability and trying to beat them. They spoke of the motivation of competing in this way which suggests that competition may well be the magic bullet to ‘fix our broken classrooms’.  But read on and the picture gets less rosy, the study also mentioned students whose scores were poor and had decided to stop trying. And the authors themselves noted in the discussion that the interviews showed the students (even those at the top) were focused on the grades rather than the learning.  The raw score was everything, getting that up and keeping it up was the whole game of schooling, the GPA tail was wagging the learning dog. There appeared to be little passion for learning for its own sake or enjoyment in these students.

The second article was more recent and Swedish (Williams and Sheridan 2010). It explored a pedagogic strategy of grouping students and having them collaborate on tasks and then compete as groups. As such it does not fit the Birbalsingh model of fierce competition between individuals, but it was a useful read as it cited a great deal of education research which noted how individual competition in schools can be destructive, especially for those left at the bottom of the class who become extremely demotivated.  The rest of the article (which was an excellent one), explored how to create the conditions for collaborative competition amongst students. It found that competition could be useful, but it needs to be part of an overall strategy and teachers need to plan effectively to avoid the kind of crude comparison of grades and scores where students ask ‘what did you get’ and do not further reflect on what this means. This article reviewed many other sources on competition between students and there were few citations of positive results without any caveats needing to be applied.

The third paper was from a journal called Education Economics and used ‘economic behaviour analysis’ to explore the effects of competition between students (Wang and Wang 2003).  This paper used some industrial grade equations to explore how students motivate themselves when competing. I have to admit to not understanding all of the equations, although the thrust of the meaning was clear enough.  The authors point out a theory from economics called ‘loss aversion’.  Put simply this is the fact that people hate to lose things. We have more pain from losing £200 than joy from earning £200.  This aversion to loss seems to spur those students who become sure they will not win to lower their effort as if they did put in maximum effort and still not win, then this would be a bigger loss: ‘If students are concerned about their perceived ability, they may be motivated to lower effort – a strategy to win by not losing.’

This quick review of three papers goes to show that Birbalsingh’s idea that competition is a great way to increase learning maybe flawed. Firstly there is the difficulty that students may focus solely on grades and lose sight of learning. This may lead to brittle learners, unable to tackle new challenges where success is not guaranteed and who find it hard to engage with a learning task for its own sake. Are these the students who will be equipped to succeed in the workplace and study at University?  Secondly there is small matter of how this competition is handled within the existing pedagogy of the classroom and the school.  Just posting lists up seems a rather crude way of letting students know how they are doing, but Birbalsingh does not appear to outline a more elaborate or thought out strategy for this. And finally there is always the issue of what happens to the lower ranks of the group.  In her simplistic model those dunces at the bottom will be so desperate to rise up the list that they will double and redouble their efforts, fighting their way out of the gutter with a raw passion to ascend the scale. But other models suggest these students may cut their losses and give up, with the result that the strategy works to motivate the higher achievers (those who need it the least), and demotivate the lower achievers because of the very public exposure of their weaknesses. ‘The truth is that allowing students to win and lose naturally stimulates their desire to succeed’ is what Birbalsingh wrote, but unfortunately the evidence I reviewed exposes that statement as simplistic and crude.

But perhaps this is what Birbalsingh wants, the smuggling of social darwinism into the classroom, those unwilling or unable to achieve hit hard with this news every time they come to school. The school itself re-conceptualised as an instrument to weigh the social worth of its students and prepare them for a life where only dog-eat-dog competition with their peers will bring them success and happiness.  This is a traditional and well tested ‘riff’ of the Right;  success is the result of hard work, but failure is the lack of hard work and application.  Birbalsingh ends by arguing that free schools are ‘free’ to apply these traditional methods, and indicates a shadowy kind of ‘cultural pressure’ which prevents other schools (presumably those under Local Authority control), from adopting this strategy. Only schools, she argues, which break free of the progressive orthodoxy of not grading students publicly will allow us to fix our broken system. At this point the straw men are so numerous that we only pray one of those unruly students doesn’t light a fag, one spark and the entire lecture would be up in flames.

Well if this is the price of fixing the ‘broken system’, then I will be delighted to send my daughter to a ‘broken school’ where grades do not drive everything which happens, where teachers do not articulate all of their activities in terms of numeric feedback and shallow conceptions of achievement and she doesn’t have to read her name on a piece of paper posted to the classroom door.


Bergin, A.D. & Crooks, H.C.  (2000) ‘Academic Competition among Students of Color : An Interview Study’,  Urban Education, 35: p 442-472

Wang, H.  &  Yang, B. (2003) ‘Why Competition may Discourage Students from Learning? A Behavioral Economic Analysis’, Education Economics, 11:2, 117-128

Williams, P.  &  Sheridan, S. (2010): ‘Conditions for collaborative learning and constructive competition in school’, Educational Research, 52:4, 335-350

Image licenced under Creative Commons, William A Mckay
text labels are author's modification

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

5 thoughts on “Birbalsingh and competition within the classroom”

  1. The best form of competition is competition with yourself: to know more than you did yesterday, to do better than you’ve ever done, to finish faster than you thought possible, to accomplish something you didn’t even dream you could do.

    We have to learn how to light that kind of competitiveness in all students

  2. Her shallow attempts at promoting Free Schools/Academies are ridiculous. I am sure this has absolutely nothing at all to do with her own plans to open a free school…….

  3. When I was at Grammar School back in the late 60s, we had exams twice a year and we were all given our marks and position in class for each subject. These were also written on our reports.

    In subjects where I did well, coming near the “top of the class” I did in fact strive to outdo close rivals. However, where I did badly (in spite of working hard, I was mostly a good girl) I simply gave up.

    I came 31/36 in the class in Art the year we chose our options. Unsurprisingly I gave up Art. I have regretted it ever since.

    Competition may suit some students who have certain characters and abilities, but it runs the risk of alienating the others

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