Recently my 10 year-old daughter participated in an event called, Battle of the Books. The premise seemed noble. Spark interest in reading by creating a program where students would be given five books to read over the summer. They would meet as a group to discuss the book and then in the fall, they would gather with students from other schools for a competition based on recalling the book’s content. Sort of like a gameified book club for kids.
Programs like this can be very valuable in encouraging reading over the summer, where studies have showed student’s reading and vocabulary often decline. Then I arrived at the Battle. Held in a high school gym, it had the feeling a live sporting event. Teams from across the county gathered and there was a palpable excitement that was easy to get caught up in. It was clear that teams were taking this seriously – some much more than others.
While at the event, I heard of the lengths that some towns would go to in order to bring home the trophy. Some teams had cuts. Meaning that kids at some point were “kicked off” a reading team – and left home from the competition.
Other teams had practice sessions to develop their “buzzer strategy.” Apparently this is a key tactic for being able to be the first to “buzz” in to answer a question. Some even had designated buzzers. With a large team and no “buzzer” strategy, our squad did not fair well in the standard metrics of this competition. But when I asked my daughter how she felt about the whole things, her answer was telling. “Well, we were given five free books to read over the summer that were really interesting. And we were able to spend time with our friends talking about books – which was fun.” It has become the accepted position that competition and the potential for rewards are ideal motivators to drive us to our best.
But as parents, teachers, business leaders, and even our elected officials – do we too often prioritize winning and competition over teamwork and cooperation? New research summarized in this week’s New York Times talks generally about the limits of a rewards based culture and how intrinsic motivation is better for long-term character development. The last line in this op-ed really drives home the point. Leading thinkers like Douglas Rushkoff are encouraging us to return to our cooperative roots, via his Team Human podcast and soon to be released book of the same name (both are riveting and should be required listening/reading). Competition can be fun and intense and there is no doubting the dopamine high we get when we reach the top of a podium. Yet, when we “go all in” and see only the trophy it means that some things are left out – like perspective and purpose.