Competitive Classrooms vs. Cooperative Classrooms: Pros and Cons

Competitive Classrooms vs. Cooperative Classrooms: Pros and Cons
The SHARE Team November 1, 2013

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This post has been updated as of December 2017.

Educators often debate the merits of the cooperative classroom against those of the competitive classroom. These two teaching strategies are quite different—even oppositional—and advocates on both sides of the debate passionately defend the benefits of their preferred classroom style.

What is the difference between a cooperative classroom and a competitive one? Is one of these teaching strategies really better than the other? What’s best for your classroom? We took a look at the definition of each strategy, as well as the pros and cons of each.

Defining the two teaching strategies

A discussion of the merits of these two methods has to start with a clear understanding of what each represents.

The cooperative classroom

Students are usually divided into small groups and encouraged to work together to maximize their own learning, as well as the others’ in the group. Activities can include children reading their work aloud to each other, critiquing and editing each other’s writing projects, using flashcards to help each other study spelling words or multiplication tables, and working together on a larger project such as a science experiment, a history presentation, or the analysis of a social problem.

Pros of the cooperative classroom structure include:

  • Children learn important cooperative social skills that they will need later in their working lives.
  • Students can actually learn better when they also help teach other students.
  • Children who might be left behind in a more competitive environment can be brought up to speed by their peers.

Cons of this kind of classroom are:

  • It can be hard for a teacher to accurately evaluate the progress of individual students.
  • Students may not be motivated to excel if they know their classmates will do whatever work is needed on a project.
  • Students can become frustrated when their individual efforts go unrecognized.

The Competitive Classroom

Sometimes called individualistic learning, the competitive classroom is the more traditional form of learning. Students study alone and complete their own assignments while trying to learn the presented subject matter. Tests and quizzes measure each student’s progress, and letter grades or percentages are given for both assignments and tests. In this type of setting, students may become competitive with each other for the best grades and for your recognition.

Pros of a competitive classroom structure include:

  • Children face the real-world challenge of competition.
  • Students are encouraged to do their very best.
  • Independent thinking and effort are encouraged and rewarded.
  • Children can still work in teams, but compete against other teams—it can be a great way to enliven the classroom environment.

Cons of this kind of classroom are:

  • Some students may become frustrated and even apathetic if they fall too far behind the rest of their classmates.
  • Earning high grades and teacher approval may come to be seen as more important than actual learning.
  • Getting along with others is de-emphasized.

Is there a middle ground?

Like life, nothing in teaching is completely black or white. Given that competitive and cooperative teaching strategies each have their advantages, both could be incorporated into a classroom—provided that you remain on guard against the pitfalls of each strategy.

For instance, students could study their spelling words in small groups or in pairs, but could still be responsible for their own test grades. Science and history lessons could be taught in the more traditional competitive way, but larger, cooperative projects could also be part of the lesson plan. Students could also be allowed more say in how they attack a learning problem by choosing their own collaborative activities when appropriate and and deciding how they would like to be tested.

Trying to incorporate both cooperative and competitive teaching strategies into a single class requires a lot of commitment and effort, but if that’s best for your class, give it a go!

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