Balancing Collaboration and Competition: The Way Forward for Nurturing Happier Students

“Better, faster, sooner!”

I have been conditioned through life, by personal and professional influences and contexts, to continuously strive for winning. My life has centered on competition; it’s a deeply rooted emotion. In my school days, scoring the highest marks was the ultimate aim. Learning was never rewarded, and collaboration was hardly mentioned in pedagogy, curriculum, or assessment. 

One reason competition is so ingrained in my genes may be that I grew up in India in the 1990s. It was a time when the Indian middle class was living modestly – without modern-day amenities like cars or air conditioners. My friends and I were alien to the idea of pocket money; we only heard about it in the Hollywood series dubbed in Hindi. The means were limited. In that India, we competed against each other for the best opportunities.  The other reason could be that the traces of British imperialism profoundly impacted our education system, which was designed to mass produce intellectually identical and similarly trained workers focused on remembering things rather than creative thinking. Honestly, collaboration was never a part of the expected learning outcomes. I was taught to struggle alone and leave others behind to become “somebody.” I am unsure, but the struggle may have worsened for the next generations. Though the middle class has attained amenities, the competition seems to have intensified. When I teach business students and suggest group presentations or assignments, I still come across individually written pieces put together at the last moment. 

Fortunately or unfortunately, the reality is that everything around me works best through collaboration – whether interacting with my students, being on committees with my colleagues, organizing training programs, or living at home with my partner. Competition may help me, but what helps everyone, including my organization, is my effective collaboration with those around me. So, I was taught almost the opposite of what I was supposed to do, leading to the classical, evergreen – cognitive dissonance. It makes me doubtful, anxious, and frustrated. If it affects my mental health, what about my students’ mental health who have yet to experience life? 

Nature balances collaboration and competition beautifully. While it creates competition where the fittest survive, it shows ample examples of the interdependence of communities and species. As we advance, integrating the principles of collaboration in our education system - across pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment may help us nurture happier individuals and citizens. We may then stop measuring only our individual success and realize that being happy together in a community can also be a measure of success and, in fact, a more fulfilling and sustainable one!

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Assistant Professor, Malaviya National Institute of Technology Jaipur. PhD, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee.