Commentary: Is academic competition really necessary to be the best than we can be?

Commentary: Is academic competition really necessary to be the best than we can be?

Our education system has to reward more than just examination prowess. As individuals, we too need to learn to do the same or risk losing valuable human talent, says Channel NewsAsia’s Bharati Jagdish.

NUS graduates at commencement ceremony
NUS Business School graduates at their commencement ceremony. (File photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: As the Ministry of Education’s efforts to dial back the overemphasis on exam results are being applauded by some, there are others who feel it is a mistake.

Last week, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung again outlined moves such as changing the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system.

From 2021, the PSLE T-score system will be replaced with wider “achievement levels” - a change which he called a "big step" in reducing academic stress and helping students enjoy learning more.

Some question if these aims will be achieved, citing the possibility of parents and students still feeling the pressure to achieve every last point in order to attain higher achievement levels.

Let’s face it, the system will ultimately be what the people in it make of it.

Of course there are others who feel that bolder changes need to be made to the extent that standardised exams such as the PSLE should be scrapped altogether.

But speaking more broadly about the education system, Mr Ong also said that while the Government needs to listen to the voices of all segments of society, there is no a singular message from the people.

READ: A commentary from a mother of three on combating the culture of comparison with the release of PSLE results.

READ: The struggle parents face in picking a “good school” for their child, a commentary.

Ong Ye Kung in parliament
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung speaking in Parliament on May 15, 2018. 

Instead, there is a "a diversity of views, conflicting and complex, even as they remain compelling".

For example, he said a call for the PSLE to be scrapped ignores parents who in fact support the system.

"Because the PSLE experience teaches their children to work hard, and to demonstrate what they have learned throughout primary school years," Mr Ong explained. 

Many parents are also not overly stressed by it, because they don’t see PSLE as an exercise to chase for high marks, but rather as an objective and transparent way to decide which secondary schools their children will go to.

READ: A commentary on retaining the PSLE.


Based on my conversations with parents, Mr Ong is not wrong. In fact, some have even told me that they prefer the current PSLE T-score system. 

Some proclaim that such a system which measures children’s’ abilities relative to their peers is vital training for the real world. 

One pointed out that even at work, many of us are assessed on a bell curve, so why shouldn’t children be exposed to competing on this scale from young. 

Advocates of this approach say it instils a competitive spirit that motivates their children to excel and outdo their peers.

Perhaps they have a point. If exams are done away with, would students be at risk of losing out on developing discipline, drive and a sense of competitiveness that they would ultimately need to succeed even in the working world?

Singapore as a nation, strives for excellence in international league tables on several fronts and when, for example, our airport receives a top award for being the best in the world, we collectively rejoice.

Singapore Changi Airport voted World's Best Airport
Mr Lee Seow Hiang, CEO of Changi Airport Group, receiving the Skytrax World's Best Airport Award. (Photo: Changi Airport Group)

Having such measures of excellence can have a motivating effect and helps ignite a competitive spirit that is essential to our survival.


However, proponents of scrapping the PSLE often cite the young age of the children subjected to the high-stakes exam and the judgement that comes along with it as justifications to eliminate it.

Should students so young be made to deal with the overwhelming stress of having to ace such standardised tests?

Do students inadvertently end up spending more time preparing for the exam rather than developing a love for learning?

If the measure of person’s capabilities is assessed on his or her ability to ace exams, what does this do to those who aren’t good at exams?

Are exams even the best way to determine a person’s strengths and capabilities as a human being?

Do we, as a society, really want to continue supporting moves that label and effectively write off children at such a young age without nurturing their other strengths and capabilities?

These are all valid questions.

If the goal is to motivate individuals to work hard and do their best, whether in exams or in their chosen sport or profession as an adult, perhaps a distinction needs to be made between unhealthy competitiveness and motivation.

File photo of a student taking the 2017 A-Level Chemistry paper. (Photo: Ruyi Wong)

We shouldn’t assume that competitiveness leads to motivation when clearly, it can often create negative stress and peer pressure that could in fact, dampen motivation.

In fact, several studies show that if competition in schools is inappropriately exercised, it even causes anxiety among those who excel in spite of it.

American author Alfie Kohn who has written numerous books on education and testing has been warning against excessive competition since the 1980s.

In The Case Against Competition, he claims that competition in fact undermines self-esteem and motivation and children do not learn better when “education is transformed into a competitive struggle”.

He cites research showing that competition makes kids anxious and interferes with concentration, and that those who lose will naturally suffer self-doubt.

But even winning may not build character as feelings of self-worth become “dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition”, and a child’s value in such situations is usually defined by the number of people they’ve beaten.

Those of us who believe that without competition, we will become ill-disciplined and unsuccessful perhaps should think twice.

According to Kohn and some other researchers there is evidence that productivity in the workplace and even in the classroom suffers as a result of competition.

Kohn cites studies by David Johnson, a professor of social psychology at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues who reviewed work on this subject from 1924 to 1980. The majority of the studies found that kids in fact learn better when they work cooperatively as opposed to competitively.

primary school students
File photo of students at a primary school.

Competition, in fact, prevents kids from sharing their talents and resources.

Trying to beat others distracts them as it forces them to concentrate on the reward and become less interested in the learning.

Kohn claims that “there’s no problem with comparing their achievements to an objective standard (how fast they ran, how many questions they got right) or to how they did yesterday or last year. But if we value our children’s intellectual development, we need to realise that turning learning into a race simply doesn’t work”.

Granted, Kohn’s views are considered controversial and I’m sure if one looked, there will be other studies that counter his views.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the impact of competition is by observing your child.

Is he or she thriving or declining in a competitive academic environment?

READ: Are we missing the point of education? A commentary.

READ: The education system is changing but is true change still elusive? A commentary.


A common thread in research about motivation is that competition doesn’t have to be the sole method of motivating someone to do his best.

Psychologists say encouraging your children to do their best, having fun and learning a skill can be a powerful motivator.

Certainly exams aren’t the only way to do this.

Perhaps instead of advocating that our children be subjected to rigorous standardised testing or bell curve assessments that some of us are subjected to in the working world, we should advocate for change away from such assessments in work settings as well.

In my recent On the Record interview with Chairman of Changi Airport Group, Liew Mun Leong, he revealed that his approach to making Changi Airport the best airport in the world was built on, in fact, not focussing on the competition.

“I told my staff that being the best airport in the world is not to be your target. Don’t use that as a goal and your KPI. Don’t chase the top airport award because if you do that, it will distract you.”

Your target is to build an air hub, your target is to make your passengers happy. Being the best is just the result of your efforts and your motivations. If you make beating others your target, then you will be too obsessed with it and then you may forget other things.

In this case, it seems success was a by-product of doing your best to be the best than you can be, rather comparing yourself to others and trying to outdo them.

Can’t this approach be applied to the way we view education and how our children’s strengths and weaknesses are evaluated?

There are already some promising changes occurring in the education system.

Among them, a greater focus on applied learning, multiple pathways to help kids discover their passions, strengths and competencies, and a programme rather than class-based approach that ensures more porosity between classes and streams.

teck ghee primary school
File photo of Teck Ghee Primary School students. (Photo: Teck Ghee Primary School)

Some educators have suggested a greater focus on multiple evaluation methods which include a students’ participation in class discussions and projects.

Whether PSLE will eventually be done away with is clearly a discussion that will continue.

But one thing that can be done almost immediately is modifying the mindsets about academic competition both within the classroom and at home.

The key is to ensure that kids are not judged mostly on their ability to ace exams and that those who excel in this regard are not automatically judged as being superior to those who don’t.

It is also important for us to realise there are other ways to encourage individuals to discover their strengths and excel while building character. Unhealthy, debilitating academic competition is not the only way.

Our education system has to reward more than just examination prowess and more importantly, we, as individuals, need to learn to do the same or risk losing valuable human talent.

Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.

Source: CNA/nr