The Role of Academic Competitions

by Charles Debelak

Since the late 1980s, academic competitions have been an integral part of our programming at Birchwood School. They are an important support to our academic and character development programs. But given the negative connotations of competition in elementary and middle school we found it necessary to explain how academic competitions might become a valuable component of a Birchwood education. We identified three components.

First, academic competitions must be a complete learning experience, and not merely a one day competition with winners and losers. There is not much value in pitting the best students from one school or class against another. Instead we coined the phrase “high quality competition” and identified those competitions that offered a complete program for learning and growing in specific areas of study. A high quality competition offered extensive training and programming for all children to significantly advance their knowledge and skills. A high quality competition offered opportunity for all children to stretch their abilities to higher and higher levels and to cultivate productive work habits. High quality competitions introduce children to intellectual habits of mind, those of the historian, the scientist, the mathematician, or the writer. And they illustrate through each child’s participation, what are the pathways for growth in these disciplines. 

Next, keeping in mind the potential negative effects of competition while appreciating the benefits, we coined another phrase “soft competition.” To understand this phrase, you must understand that we accepted an important premise. Competition, whether against yourself or against others, is an inevitability in life. It is an inescapable component of growth. Through competition children learn the pathway for advancement no matter what their area of interest is. To compete, according to our definition, is to grow, it is to advance, it is to become a better version of yourself in all areas of life. In the process of competing, in the process of growing, students learn the meaning of goal setting, hard work, self-discipline, and resilience.

Of course, competition suggests disappointment, frustration, and failure. Competition suggests pressure, worry, and anxiety. We understand this. But we also understand that these negative experiences are the natural consequence of attempting to grow and advance in every area of life. They are unavoidable, and to shield children from these consequences or to separate children from the challenges of growth and competition, does children a disservice. We adopted the phrase soft competition to describe how we would use these challenging experiences as springboards for growth. 

Soft competition recognizes the potential negative consequences of competition, but then shows children how to address these consequences positively and productively. Hardship can be a learning experience, an opportunity for discovering how disappointment, discouragement, and even failure can be used to cultivate resilience. Children learn how to use challenging experiences as a means to nurture determination, dedication, self awareness, and eventually success. 

Soft competition requires two components. First are the teachers (and parents) who understand this process and commit themselves to coaching children through the highs and lows of academic competition. Second is having these competitions built into the curriculum so that children are guided through competitive experiences repeatedly over the course of several years. During this time, they experience success and they experience failure. Not once or twice, but many times over. Responding to challenge and adversity becomes part of their modus operandi. As a matter of habit, students set goals, work hard, push themselves, face challenges, overcome disappointments, and above all enjoy the satisfaction that comes with meaningful growth. 

Finally, we embrace academic competitions because they help us remove intellectual ceilings. The data surrounding the education of high ability or gifted learners is conclusive. They require academic acceleration. They need challenging academic opportunities, ones that will inspire and motivate their learning commensurate with their abilities. For these high ability learners to grow according to their aptitudes, they need levels of challenge that far exceed what could be found in a regular classroom. Although we have created a very challenging academic environment for all students, the high ability students often needed to learn and understand standards of achievement and industry as compared to the best student minds at a regional, state, or national level. It is too easy for high ability students to slip into complacency because they are so much brighter than their peers, and as a result they grow lazy and unproductive. High quality academic competitions provide opportunities to discover intellectual possibilities and to discover the work ethic that will empower their growth. 

Click here to watch Mr. Debelak’s video on the Aim of Education.

This article was written by Birchwood’s Head of School Charles Debelak to provide parents with information about sound educational principles and child development issues gleaned from history, contemporary research, and his 50+ years of educating, coaching, and counseling children, young adults, and parents.