If a rational, friendly, and very curious alien landed on earth and tried to make sense of our human activities, there would be a lot to be explained. Arts, for one thing. Music. Perhaps the political systems. But I'm sure that by far the most perplexing task would be to understand competitive sports. Competitive sports drive us to wild extremes: single-minded life commitments, injury, gambling, and broken friendships - not to mention $25,000 event tickets. I am sure brain science has a biochemical explanation for why competition is such a power force. But what I really want to know is how can we harness that power to help us learn?
It's an old idea. Spelling bees have been around for a long time. Jeopardy helps one develop certain cerebral muscle. So can we use it more often for subjects so many kids find challenging - math, reading, science, programming?
I've heard objections to the use of competition in schools on the grounds that it fosters aggressive behavior, and kids on the losing side can be discouraged and upset. But this can be overcome. The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotic competition is a great example of fostering a competitive spirit that encourages cooperation and turns a loss into an inspiring experience. How does that happen?
FIRST competitions foster a clever set of rules and incentives. Do not beat up on another team's robot, they might be your partner in the next round. Stay within the rules, or lose points. Plan and practice. Help your teammates do their best work, it's best for the team. Know what you do best. These are universal rules that promote learning from the experience and will serve you well in life. In a FIRST competition they might help you win, but even those who don't win walk away from the experience happy, ecstatic even, about the entire experience, and talk about learning more than they have ever learned in the classroom.