Between competition and cooperation

At the moment I’m busy setting up for Readers’ Cup season. And I have yet again a chance to think about the balance between competition and cooperation. This time in the light of having attended the AISC in Hong Kong in December (which I still need to write about) and and particularly having attended David Gleason’s session “At what cost?” (You can purchase his book here).

Some educators, and most parents (particularly the competitive types themselves –  and high fee paying schools are full of those types – because they’re the “winners“, if they weren’t they couldn’t have afforded the fees) will tell you that kids “love” competition. That it’s an artificial construct to pretend otherwise. And the whole movement towards medals for all is “stupid” or “unnatural” etc.  I’m not entirely sure. And bits of evidence appear to be pointing in different directions. I’ve not done any academic study of this, and won’t be able to point to any peer reviewed research, but things I’ve been hearing and reading seem to think there is substantial nuance in the matter.

The most interesting of these was the following: “Do Nobel Laureates Create Prize-Winning Networks? An Analysis of Collaborative Research in Physiology or Medicine“:

Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine who received the Prize between 1969 and 2011 are compared to a matched group of scientists to examine productivity, impact, coauthorship and international collaboration patterns embedded within research networks. After matching for research domain, h-index, and year of first of publication, we compare bibliometric statistics and network measures. We find that the Laureates produce fewer papers but with higher average citations. The Laureates also produce more sole-authored papers both before and after winning the Prize. The Laureates have a lower number of coauthors across their entire careers than the matched group, but are equally collaborative on average. Further, we find no differences in international collaboration patterns. The Laureates coauthor network reveals significant differences from the non-Laureate network. Laureates are more likely to build bridges across a network when measuring by average degree, density, modularity, and communities. Both the Laureate and non-Laureate networks have “small world” properties, but the Laureates appear to exploit “structural holes” by reaching across the network in a brokerage style that may add social capital to the network. The dynamic may be making the network itself highly attractive and selective. These findings suggest new insights into the role “star scientists” in social networks and the production of scientific discoveries.

Things seem to have shifted in the last 50 years, as interestingly enough, in 1967,  Harriet Zuckerman found that:

“Nobel laureates in science publish more and are more apt to collaborate than a matched sample of scientists. Interviews with 41 of 55 laureates and comparison of their research output with the output of the matched sample indicate that these patterns hold at every stage of the life-work-cycle. As laureates report and as their publications corroborate, they exercise noblesse oblige in arranging co-authorship in collaborative publications. Receipt of the Nobel prize is followed by declining productivity and changed work practices, as a result of changed role obligations and activities. Reductions in productivity are more severe for laureates who experience comparatively large increments in prestige through the prize than for those who were already eminent. The prize generates strain in collaborative associations so that most of these terminate soon after the award.”

And then of course the Google findings that what they needed in their employees wasn’t necessarily STEM skills or coding, but actually empathy.

“Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”

How should this knowledge change my approach both to my own students and my practice as a librarian within the greater network of librarians both in Singapore and generally?  Besides evangelising our school’s Blokes with Books clubs at a number of different conferences this academic year – because I believe SOCIAL BELONGING is such a vital ingredient in learning; I’ve also started pushing the Global Read Aloud whenever I can. It has its flaws, as I’ve documented, but it’s a good start for cooperative connection and reading.  It’s a model that we can emulate at a national or regional level where we form connections between students in our own book clubs, and can reach out to students at other schools as well. The technology is there, synchronous and asynchronous, we just need the will to create the time and enthusiasm.

The typical relationship between schools (if any) is adversarial. We compete for students to ensure “bums on seats” so we can ensure our continued existence. We compete in sports, in chess, in lego robotics, in the math / science olympiads, battle of the books / readers’ cup. Schools like to be “exclusive” where the emphasis is on “exclude” . And yet all the research on motivation, academic and otherwise shows us that the things that count are autonomy, mastery, affiliation and purpose (using those words or a variation of them). In all the 100s of studies I’ve read over the last years, not one article has ever suggested that competition is the way to go – except to say it doesn’t work, nor does other types of extrinsic reward.

So why do my students get rabid with excitement at the mention of a kahoot? And yet the flip side of that is that there are always tears and panic – human nature, human emotion, adrenaline?

I’d love to be able to keep central the idea of “I’m improving” “we’re improving” “we’re in this together”. As Jeremy Farrar stated, reflecting on the 2017 Nobel prize winners:

“And if we look towards some of the great challenges of our time – tackling the problem of clean and sustainable energy, providing sufficient food for a growing planet, developing new genetic technologies to improve health, or harnessing the power of the digital revolution, we start to see how difficult it will be for any one individual to take any of them on alone. The same is true for fundamental science such as understanding the working of the brain or the origin of the universe.

Collaboration brings fresh ideas and new perspectives. Bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, often across borders, leads to new ways of thinking, better solutions and faster progress.”


Farrar, J. (2017, September 30). We hail individual geniuses, but success in science comes through collaboration. Retrieved 24 February 2018, from
Gleason, D. L. (2017). At what cost?: defending adolescent development in fiercely competitive schools.
Strauss, V. (2017, December 20). The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students – [Newspaper]. Retrieved 24 February 2018, from
Wagner, C. S., Horlings, E., Whetsell, T. A., Mattsson, P., & Nordqvist, K. (2015). Do Nobel Laureates create prize-winning networks? An analysis of collaborative research in physiology or medicine. PLOS ONE, 10(7), e0134164.
Zuckerman, H. (1967). Nobel laureates in science: Patterns of productivity, collaboration, and authorship. American Sociological Review, 32(3), 391.

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