But even when games find their way into a traditional school setting, they’re hardly an automatic solution. When the stakes are too high, the games becomes a crushing competition that’s fun for spectators but a chore for most students. Think of your typical spelling bee, with its public humiliation and permadeath “one-mistake-you’re-out” rule. When the stakes are too low — well, actually the stake can’t get too low, and perhaps this is the point.
Schools have long relied on games — they call them sports, clubs and band competitions — to get students excited about coming to school. In fact, these are often all that keep kids there long enough to graduate. But schools have rarely used academic competition to reach more than a few top students even through research suggests that kids who aren’t at the top would benefit the most from it. As far back as 1959, sociologist James Coleman was urging schools to use competition as a way to change students’ attitudes about academics. At the time, he was head of the Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Social Relations (later renamed the Department of Sociology). He’d just spent two years studying nine Midwestern high schools and found that more than 40 percent of boys wanted to remembered in school as a “star athlete,” but fewer than 30 percent favored the epithet “brilliant student.” This despite the fact, Coleman observed, that school is “an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.”
In schools from the inner city to the most privileged suburbs Coleman discovered one key similarity: kids were intensely social, spending most of their free time playing sports and hanging out. “Adults often forget how ‘person-oriented’ children are,” he wrote. “They have not yet moved into the world of cold impersonality in which many adults live.” The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he said, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teen’s attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze “maximum rewards for minimal effort.” Like factory workers or prison inmates, to which Coleman directly compared them, high school students in the 1950s had responded to school’s demands by “holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all.” They were protecting themselves from extra work by ostracizing high achievers.
It was, Coleman suggested, a rational response to a system whose rewards sat on a bell curve. Schools had created a kind of free market in which every student was competing against every other student for relative rank. Grades, he found, were almost completely relative — when one student achieved more, it “not only raises his position, but in effect lowers the position of others. The result, even in the best suburban schools, was intense social pressure to minimize, not maximize studying.
But these same students didn’t think twice about honoring athletes. Coleman theorized that because most athletic events pit school against school, star athletes’ achievements bring prestige to the entire school, which benefits everyone. A student spending her lunch hour studying “is regarded as someone a little odd, or different,” he wrote. But the basketball player who shoots baskets at lunch “is watched with interest and admiration, not with derision.” So Coleman proposed that schools replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education.