We argue that certain intercollegiate activities such as mock trial effectively combine competitive and cooperative elements to provide unique educational opportunities. After a survey of other Mock Trial coaches, we conclude that competition does not automatically result in negative educational outcomes. Instead, mock trial teams appear to mix competition with cooperation to gain positive educational benefits.
"I am the champion of education in the competitive forum. Competition, clearly, is not the best fit for some; they're adequately served by all the rest our university offers. But there are students who flourish in the competitive arena and, for them, the educational product is truly profound." Undergraduate mock trial team coach
Competition gets almost no respect in pedagogical literature. "Cooperative" or "collaborative" approaches are in vogue, while the rigors of competition as a learning process and tool are disparaged as unhealthy (Kohn 1992; Slavin 1995). Despite the persistence of this kind of argument in educational circles, colleges and high schools sponsor all sorts of teams (athletic, artistic and academic) that compete against other schools on a regular basis. How are we as undergraduate educators to understand this apparent disparity between educational theory and practice regarding competition at the collegiate level? Based on our own experiences, our first reaction is to question whether competition is always an impediment to learning and to investigate how it might actually enhance education. To consider this issue, we look at a program with which we are very familiar: the world of intercollegiate mock trial teams competing under the auspices of the American Mock Trial Association (AMTA). We will examine whether mock trial teams can provide a useful mix of cooperation and competition to spur learning.
Kohn's Argument Against Competition
Kohn's influential book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, arguing that competition imposes uniformly negative consequences on society, ignited a debate within the fields of education and psychology over the virtues and the vices of competition. Kohn's major thesis is stated succinctly as "trying to do well and trying to beat others are two separate things" (Kohn 1992, 55). He believes that many individuals have been socialized into enjoying (or at least tolerating) competition, and he decries the negative psychological costs of competition imposed upon individuals and society, such as diminished empathy with others, increased aggression, and distrust of others. Kohn ultimately ties these negative costs of competitiveness to world problems such as war, inequality, and political corruption. He argues that refocusing educational efforts and measurements of success to emphasize cooperation over competition will lead to a better student and eventually a better world. His views echo in a crop of recent studies (e.g., Hancock 2001; Wang and Yang 2003; Lam et al 2004) which, while less polemical than Kohn's, nevertheless caution against competitive approaches in various educational settings. However, some recent educational research indicates that the relationships between competition, cooperation, and learning are not so clear. Studies of gifted secondary school students (Bergin and Cook 2000; Feldhusen et al 2000) suggest that competitive learning may be preferred and deemed beneficial among this population. Recently, a few other scholars (Ediger 2001; Spader 2002; Ghaith 2003) have presented some benefits of competition in the college classroom environment. The relationship between competition and educational methods seems more complex and situational than Kohn and his followers suggest.
Does Mock Trial Provide a Useful Counter Example?
Mock Trial provides a useful test case to investigate the effects of cooperative learning within a competitive environment. Mock trial requires students to cooperate on matters of strategy and tactics before and during trial. …