Using Technology to Drive Competition – and Change Student Culture?

By 03/29/2013

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“The present structure of rewards in high schools produces a response on the part of an adolescent social system which effectively impedes the process of education.”  So concluded sociologist James Coleman in a classic article published by the Harvard Educational Review in 1959 (and excerpted by Education Next in 2006).

The problem, as Coleman’s saw it, is that grades and most other academic performance metrics are relative indicators, ranking students against their classroom peers.  Because one student’s improved achievement reduces the position of others, social norms emerge which discourage and even denigrate academic success.  In athletics, in contrast, the structure of competition ensures that individual and team success bring glory to the school as a whole.  Effort and accomplishment are a source of honor, not ridicule.  The “obvious solution,” Coleman concluded, “is to substitute interscholastic (and intramural) competition in scholastic matters for the interpersonal competition for grades which presently exists.”

A half-century later, Coleman’s account of peer culture in American high schools still rings true.  Yet his solution remains largely untested.  Sure, a few of his specific suggestions – debate teams, drama and music contests, and science fairs – are not uncommon in American public education.  But they remain, for the most part, extracurricular add-ons in which only a limited number of students participate.  As Coleman recognized, “If the activity, whether it be debate or math competition or basketball, receives no publicity, no recognition in the newspapers and by the community generally, then its winning will have brought little glory to the school, and will bring little encouragement to the participants.”

Could technology change this picture?  That’s the theory behind Interstellar, a new venture launched by recent Harvard Kennedy School graduate Tim Kelley and ably profiled this week by USA Today’s Greg Toppo.  (Disclosure: Kelley took one of my classes, and I have served as an informal Interstellar advisor.)  The Interstellar platform allows students anywhere to compete in real-time against similarly skilled competitors, in pick-up games if they like but also in structured leagues and tournaments.  The Mathematical Association of America recently partnered with Interstellar to pilot the concept, pitting math teams from 16 high schools that regularly excel in its annual American Mathematics Competition against one another in an NCAA-style tournament bracket.   (The Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, N.J., took first prize.)

Interstellar is in the process of developing a range of applications of its technology for specific schools, districts, and charter management organizations.  In the meantime, it plans to expand the AMC-based competition to 1,000 schools next fall.  The hope, as Kelley told to Toppo, is that the competition will “bring enough glory to the math department, or enough glory to the math students, that everybody else says, ‘I’d like to try this too.’”  James Coleman would approve.

-Martin West

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  • Don Barry says:

    Our school participated in the Interstellar competition and found it valuable. We liked it a lot and we’ll continue with it. However, it should be noted that there are other competitions out there that try to fulfill Coleman’s suggestions. Despite efforts, they don’t get publicity. One is ARML = American Regions Math League ( Started in 1976, it brings together teams of 15 students from all over the US and the world to compete in a day-long competition math competition. It takes place at 4 sites simultaneously. The head-to-head nature of the competition makes it quite exciting. Teams typically practice for at least 3 months and sometimes most of the school year to get ready since the problems are difficult and lots of teamwork is necessary. It is as social as a math competition can get. Why the media refuses to cover this competition is beyond me, but despite our efforts we get the cold shoulder. Students who’d participated in ARML were led to create the Art of Problem Solving operation as well as the Harvard-MIT math competition. Both of which are just terrific.

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