Education: Competition vs Collaboration

In a time where much of the debate around education is linked to performance on national and international assessments such as PISA, TIMMS, PIRLS and in Australia, NAPLAN combined with calls for market-driven reforms there is a danger that a climate of competition between schools and systems will grow. Such competition while potentially inspiring systems to identify areas for growth may also give rise to a desire to keep ideas that deliver results a secret. What is most interesting is that this potential for competitive secrecy occurs at a time when teachers are increasingly empowered to share and collaborate across schools and systems on an international scale.

Attend a teach meet and you will see many of the strengths of educational systems on display. Firstly, teachers are passionate about what they do and bring creativity, innovation and evidenced based practice to the solution of every-day challenges faced. Teachers are enthusiastic sharers and see the benefits of collaborations within the profession. Teachers are appreciative and supportive of the intellectual activity of their peers and provide nurturing feedback that allows good ideas to become great. Teachers are highly professional, committed to learning and dedicated to ongoing professional development that will deliver results in their classrooms. Lastly it is always apparent that there exists a wealth of amazing ideas within the educational community waiting to be shared and that by engaging in this sort of collaboration you are highly likely to find that solution you have been looking for.

Physical teach meets are great but with social networking the opportunities for virtual collaborations continue to improve. Twitter, Skype, Facebook, ScoopIt, Google Apps for Education (GAFE) all offer opportunities for sharing and collaboration on a global scale. Thanks to such tools it has become feasible that educators can source all of their learning and teaching resource requirements from a pool of ideas created, evaluated and curated by teachers. Such a body of resources is placing pressure on publishers of text books and related resources as teachers increasingly find better options available from colleagues and shared at no cost. The development of this shared tool set requires ongoing two-way collaboration where the value derived from sharing a resource comes from the access it provides in return.

This is where competition is potentially most harmful. If my access to a resource provides my students and my school or system with an advantage am I more or less likely to share that in a competitive market-driven economy? Beyond this is a system likely to invest in developing new programmes that involve an element of risk compared to adopting a widely used commercial solution already adopted by those viewed as competitors? In the world of IT the saying ‘No one was ever fired for buying IBM’ reflected not that they had the best option but that this was the safe option. Competition in a market where success or failure is determined by a narrow, clearly defined measure such as that provided by national and international assessment programmes is unlikely to ever deliver innovation.

The use of these measures not only stifles creative teaching but limits student exposure to creative learning. The trend to following the leaders in the league tables on PISA has most recently shifted the focus from Finland to China. Yong Zhao, Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon and influential speaker on education advises caution. China’s success on PISA has come at a high cost to its students and within China there are calls for a more human approach to education. Zhao shares concerns over the demands and pressure that stellar performance on high stakes testing places on students. 'That’s the secret: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores. But is this what we want for our children?’ (Zhao, Y 2010) Further analysis of PISA results reveal a negative correlation between results and confidence in entrepreneurial capabilities (Zhao, Y 2012) indicating that what these tests measure and create may not equate with the ideal graduate disposition innovative industries are hoping for.

Further the sort of competition driven by these ‘High Stake' assessments hides the underlying social, racial and gender issues that allow a system to produce great results for some but not all of its students. Sue Thomson writes 'The results from the latest PISA assessment have shown that Australia does have a world-class education system - for most students - but there's much work to do to raise the achievement level of Indigenous, remote and poor students.’ A nation’s results on PISA readily hides the results it achieves for its disadvantaged and the trend to blame teachers and schools for dips and defects at a national level shifts the blame away from deeper socio-economic factors. Raewyn Connell shares that educators know how to deliver effective education across diverse environments and needs but that this is of little use if the agenda is already set; 'contrary to the rhetoric of ‘evidence-based policy’, neo-liberal policy-making proceeds as if it already knows the answer to policy problems.’ If that answer is pre-set as market-driven reform targeted at driving improved teachers, teaching and schools the underlying inequities will go unnoticed.

Connell concludes that 'Therefore, one of the most important things that intellectual workers concerned with education can now do, is to build alternative spaces - spaces in which critique is possible, practitioner knowledge can find expression and other trajectories for education are proposed.’ I agree, now is the time for educators to collaboratively affirm what education can achieve. To work as a profession together, united in the goal of achieving excellence for all students and to do so through the sharing of our collective wisdom.

By Nigel Coutts


Connell, R. (2013) Why do market ‘reforms’ persistently increase inequality? Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, Vol.34(2), p.279--285.

Thomson, S. (2008). International league: Australia’s standing in international tests Teacher:The National Education Magazine, February 2008 40-43