What Works: Cooperation vs. Competition

Many of you may be acquainted with Alfie Kohn’s radical views on creating a noncompetitive classroom environment. When I first read his controversial views on education, I shook my head and rolled my eyes. This response was in reflection of some of my teaching habits. Yes, I reward students with external awards, such as stickers, prizes, and grades.

Kohn’s theories also made me reflect upon my educational practices. Self-reflection is the first step to change!

Bùùùùù! by Max-B

Photo by Max-B licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic.

My Comedy of Errors

At the time, I co-taught at an English camp for German speaking children. The class consisted of 20 children between the ages of six- to seven-years-old who spoke and understood very little English. On the first day, I received a less than warm welcome. The children ran around the classroom flying paper airplanes. They climbed the walls! They ignored me, since I knew as much German as they knew English. The worst part of the week was that one little boy was treated as an outcast and the children were quite cruel to him. We experienced many behavior problems. Everyday, fights occurred.

The second year I was asked to help at the English camp again. This time I decided to try Kohn’s idea to make the classroom more cooperative versus competitive.

The Transition

First, I set-up learning stations and group work areas. Then, I put the students into groups of three. Since we were learning about Native Americans,these small groups represented their tribes. Each student was given a role and responsibility in the tribe. Each day the tribe was given a mission. Furthermore, we only played cooperative learning games and activities. My co-teacher looked at me strangely when we played the cooperative learning version of musical chairs! However, the children enjoyed this much better than the original version.

My Growth

This experience in a cooperative learning environment was one of my best teaching experiences. The children learned English. We experienced no behavior problems, no fighting, and no cruelty. Instead, the children helped each other. At the end of the camp, I actually received hugs from all the children. They wanted to return the next year!

Your boot camp challenge for this week:

Reflect upon yourself as an educator, by taking this teacher effectiveness quiz. Ponder the results. Can you improve in any area?

Do you have a teaching strategy, tip, or lesson that caters to diverse learning styles in the classroom, including English Language Learners?  Please, include a comment!


Shelly Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell is a teacher trainer, instructional designer, adjunct professor, and the author of The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers: Small Steps to Transform Your Teaching and Learning to Go: Lesson Ideas for Teaching with Mobile Devices, Cell Phones and BYOT. She has been recognized by the ELTon Awards, The New York Times, the Ministry of Education in Spain, and Microsoft’s Heroes for Education as an innovator in the movement of teacher-driven professional development and education technology. Recently, she was named Woman of the Year 2014 by Star Jone’s National Association of Professional Women and awarded a Bammy Award as a founder of #Edchat, the Twitter chat that spurred over 400 teacher chats. She has trained teachers and taught learners in over 25 countries and has consulted with organizations worldwide such as UNESCO Bangkok, The European Union aPLaNet Project, Cultura Iglesa of Brazil, the British Council in Tel Aviv, IATEFL Slovenia, HUPE Croatia, and VenTESOL. She shares regularly via TeacherRebootCamp.com, Twitter (@ShellTerrell), and Facebook.com/shellyterrell. Her greatest joy is being the mother of Rosco the pug.


  1. This is a fascinating piece and I really enjoyed Anne’s audio (and your voicethread in other post).

    I’m really interested in communities and their development (I have a ‘physical’ community – the writers group – and also run, and/or participate in a number of online communities).

    Part of the reasons behind these activities is my fascination with people and what makes them tick (which is what made me leave the Caribbean) but mostly I just really enjoy working with peers rather than only on my own (am a freelance language teacher).

    My theory re your topic tends to run on something that could be called “competitive cooperation.”

    I think competitive instincts are evolutionary kick-backs and we can’t ignore them, people do genuinely like being the best at something or the other and our students, being people, do too.

    However our movement from trees into creating societies came out cooperation – so for this reason I suspect this is as important an evolutionary instinct as winning.

    My guess is, with students or any other type of community and dunno if I’m right, is that the “group’s” winning is even more satisfying than just one individual’s. I think -from observing my students – that they work harder for this than they would do if it was only for their own language improvement.

    It consistently amazes how much my students do these days and it’s pretty much because they are mostly doing the teaching and sharing LOL and I’m just there to correct the language.

    I have seen that forming bonds which support one and other while raising English knowledge is immensely satisfying and motivating to them.

    Hope that made sense!


    CONGRATULATIONS on this blog btw, it’s fabulous and can already see that although it’s new, you will soon be one of the heavy contenders in the ELT blogosphere.

    Sharp observations, clear and precise writing, interesting themes, obvious focus: IMPRESSIVE ;-).

  2. Hello Karenne,

    I like your perspective on this topic. I had not considered the group need for competition and how this “cooperative competition” works to unite the group. I can think of several examples of a unifying goal creating a cooperative spirit and support among members. Most of us have seen our favorite sports teams work together for a goal and with such inspirational results. Some of us have even teared up at these results.

    In the classroom, I can see this type of competitive cooperation as well. Each group wants to have the best presentation or work and receive praise from the teacher! I believe in your business English courses this competitive spirit is very prevalent.

    You may also have a training topic for companies that may make the mistake in having individuals compete amongst each other rather than having the group compete as a whole with better results. In the classroom, this outlook is further support for Web 2.0 learning and students working in cooperative groups.

    Thanks for sharing your insightful comments and your support!

  3. […] What Works: Cooperation vs. Competition- Read about my experiences integrating cooperative learning into my young learners classroom Cooperative Learning Games for Young Learners (PDF) The different job titles and explanations along with links to Melissa Smith’s Cooperative Learning Project Silent Card Shuffle (Video) Several Cooperative Learning Activities on the Kagan Youtube Channel (Videos) 9 Cooperative Learning Activities The Jigsaw Classroom […]

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