Contests and Learning

A child growing up could be exposed quite early to competition. There are contests and pageants. In these activities, it is clear that comparisons between children are made. A child therefore inherently develops an objective, not to be seen as a loser, but as a winner. But contests are actually teaching a child one other thing. We may not be aware of it, but saying to a child, "You are smart", may in fact be no different from saying, "You are stupid". Both assume that academic achievement comes from an intrinsic talent or lack thereof. This obviously goes against what learning is all about.

At Mason Crest Elementary School in Annandale, where my children are enrolled, the specific mission is "to ensure high levels of learning for all." This mission becomes more obvious with the fact that the teachers in the school generally subscribe to a "mastery" achievement goal as opposed to a "performance" achievement goal. These two goals are usually regarded as two contrasting motivations for learning. The difference between the two are explained for example by Meece, Anderman and Anderman:
A mastery goal orientation is defined in terms of a focus on developing one's abilities, mastering a new skill, trying to accomplish something challenging, and trying to understand learning materials. Success is evaluated in terms of self-improvement, and students derive satisfaction from the inherent qualities of the task, such as its interest and challenge. By contrast, a performance goal orientation represents a focus on demonstrating high ability relative to others, striving to be better than others, and using social comparison standards to make judgments of ability and performance. A sense of accomplishment is derived from doing better than others and surpassing normative performance standards.
The following provide specific examples to help us understand the difference between the two approaches:
Sample items to assess classroom goal structuresPatterns of Adaptive Learning Survey*
Mastery goal structure
     My teacher thinks mistakes are okay as long as we are learning.
     My teacher wants us to understand our work, not just memorize it.
     My teacher really wants us to enjoy learning new things.
     My teacher recognizes us for trying hard.
     My teacher gives us time to really explore and understand new ideas.

Performance goal structure
     My teacher points out those students who get good grades as an example to all of us.
     My teacher lets us know who gets the highest scores on a test.
     My teacher makes it obvious when certain students are not doing well on their work.
     My teacher tells us how we compare with other students.
     Only a few students do really well in my class.
     My teacher calls on smart students more than on other students.

*From Anderman & Midgley (2002), Midgley et al. (1997).
The two goals do appear dichotomous. In reality, we may actually be subscribing to a combination of both - the real difference lies mainly on what we heavily emphasize.

Growing up in the Philippines, I was exposed early on to academic contests. In fact, I even won first place in an On the Spot Mathematics contest at the Centro Escolar University when I was in first grade. That was at the age of 6 and I was already competing. Competitions are indeed widespread such that one may safely extrapolate that performance goal orientation is quite emphasized in Philippine society. Fortunately, there may be some shift towards mastery goal orientation, as suggested by the following memorandum from the Philippines' DepEd:

July 1, 2014
In compliance with DepEd Order No. 8, s. 2013
this Advisory is issued for the information of DepEd officials, personnel/staff, as well as the concerned public.
The Mathematics Teachers Association of the Philippines (MTAP) will be offering the 2014 MTAP-DepEd Saturday Mathematics Programs for regular pupils/students and for talented pupils/students. 
The first program is intended for regular pupils/students. This will be conducted on six Saturdays, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon from August 9 to September 13, 2014. The sessions will be for pupils/students who belong from the 25th to the 85th percentile at each grade/year level from Grade 1 to Fourth Year. A written permit from the parents is necessary. 
The first program aims to:
1. provide the pupils and students the opportunity to explore Mathematics without the threat of tests;
2. review the materials covered last school year that enabled them to do well in Mathematics in the present school year; and
3. prepare the Grade 6 pupils and Fourth Year students for entrance examinations for First Year high school and college levels. 
The second program is for mathematically talented pupils/students. This will be conducted on seven Saturdays, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon from October 11 to November 29, 2014, except November 1, 2014. The sessions will be for pupils/students who belong to the top 15th percentile. The school principal shall endorse the pupils/students who wish to participate, along with a written permit from their
The second program aims to:
1. prepare the Grade 6 pupils and Fourth Year students for entrance examinations for First Year high school and college levels; and
2. prepare them for the Metrobank-MTAP-DepEd Math Challenge Competition. 
More information may be inquired from:
The Mathematics Teachers Association of the Philippines (MTAP)
039 Oxford St. corner Columbia Street
Cubao, Quezon City
Telephone Nos.: (02) 912-5249; (02) 709-0447
The program still does carry quite a spirit of competition, but at least, it now opens the program to a wider set of students. The following are photos from an elementary school in Paete, Laguna (These photos are copied from the Facebook page of Ibaba Elementary School) during one of the weekends of the first program:

The children seem to be enjoying the extra hours of mathematics instruction. Still, it is unfortunate that there seems to be no program for the lowest 15th percentile when these students probably need the most in terms of additional help and time in mathematics.

One clear disadvantage of competition is that it caters only to those who are perceived to have the required talent already. It does promote excellence, but unfortunately, at the expense of equity. There is no education for all. A second disadvantage which is now only becoming clear from recent research is that performance goal does not really predict consistently academic outcomes. It is the mastery achievement goal that does. This conclusion comes from an extensive study that involved 2000 students:

It could simply be a self-fulfilling prophecy when we think that skills and proficiency are stable personal traits, and act based on such belief. We must, however, recognize that when we do subscribe to this belief, we are indeed suggesting that education does not really work. It only makes the "smart" ones "smarter" and keep the "dumb" ones "dumb". This is incorrect since learning should happen inside schools.