Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Heisenberg principle and education

:en:George Washington Carver, American botanis...Image via Wikipedia

This is one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time: Competing With Competition? It is about competition and how it destroys cooperation in organizations. It describes the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:

In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known.

Then it applies this principle to organizations:

So what happens when we compete with each other? What are the consequences when we decimate each other? What happens when one departments competes with another department in the same company? What happens when one person competes with another for a salary and bonuses? What happens when society competes with Wall Street for their 401K? What happens when the competition is already lost – do we continue competing or do we then cooperate?

Which is exactly why adding extrinsic incentives totally borks the conditions which make peer-production systems work. People who don't understand how these principles work, well meaning people, try to incent what can't be incented, and they totally break it in the process.

It's the same thing with education. Want to improve education tomorrow? Then stop this competition madness immediately. Throw-out that which destroys learning: competition. Recognize that most learning is socially constructed, and do everything in your power to promote those social elements.

I saw a wonderful one-person play this week about the life of George Washington Carver, Listening to the Still Small Voice played by Paxton Williams. He had a take-away line that would be a perfect mantra for education, Lift as you climb. You can't lift when you're devoting your energy to finishing on top.

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Henry Halff said...

First, a question. What the dickens does competition in education has to do with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which, as you say, asserts that uncertainty in the momentum of an electron and uncertainty in its position are inversely (and linearly) related?

Second, that competition destroys education strikes me as something of an overgeneralization. Off the top of my head, I can think of half-dozen situations in which competition promotes learning.

Kevin Gamble said...


Thanks for your comment. Did you read the blog post that I pulled that from? He makes the point way better than I did I'm sure.

Give some examples of where competition enhances learning. Half-dozen?


Henry Halff said...

Read the original blog post, doh! Good idea. So what it says is that the more we know about competition, the less we know about cooperation. I'm not sure that the analogy is all that tightly drawn, but ...

Here are six competitive activities that advance education. They don't always work perfectly, but they do work.

1. Athletics. Athletics is about competition. Athletes improve their performance by going up against other athletes. By the way, athletics, if anything, is the counterexample to the cooperation-competition tradeoff. Athletics are inherently cooperative, and when the cooperative aspects break down (e.g., cheating) so does the competition. Conversely, when athletes help each other improve (cooperation), then the competition also improves.

2. Certain academic competitions such as spelling bees, robotic competitions, and rocketry contests help students learn what they would never learn without them. What's more, it's the competitive aspects that drive learning to the leading edge.

3. Allocation of learning resources such as college admissions. As long as learning resources are limited, we try to allocate them in the way that best benefits society. The process of making a wise allocation is itself a competition among the candidates for those resources.

4. Artistic contests such as the Van Cliburn competition or poetry contests. These types of competitions spur elite (and not so elite) artists to levels of artistic performance that they would not otherwise strive for.

5. Science fairs. I I think that science fairs are totally wrong headed because they are competitive and openly discourage the kinds of collaborative enterprises that really advance science. Science fairs are great illustrations of the competition-collaboration tradeoff. Still, I have to admit that a lot of students learn a lot about science through participation in science fairs.

6. Best Practices Awards such as Teacher of the Year. By calling our attention to outstanding performers we provide motivation to be outstanding and we sharpen our sense of what makes for outstanding performance.

Of course it's possible to screw up every one of these six enterprises, and they are all screwed up with some regularity. Even done right, they come with costs. However, they each of them are competitive activities that advance education.

lapetitevie said...

As a former teacher, I was conscious of the way competition affected my classroom. I found that my students as a whole and individually performed much better when we encouraged cooperation over competition. We also had much fewer distractions regarding behavior issues, because most of the kids had buy-in. We were a community of learners. The other students wouldn't put up with nonsense from each other. (This was early elementary school.) Of course, competition is a part of our society and always will be, but doesn't need to be perpetuated, especially for kids who already have enough pressure on them. Thanks for posting!

Henry Halff said...

The term "competition" covers a multitude of sins and virtues. Done right, competition is a cooperative venture.

Peg said...

Our word "competition" derives from the Latin, com (together) and petere (to strive, seek).

No sense of thrashing an opponent or pitting people against each other, only of people coming together in a common striving. Imagine that!

I wish we could mobilize a cultural recovery of the original sense of the word.

In my many years as a hard-core triathlete, I always did better in races that I did in time trials, finding I could draw on the energy of my "opponents"--others striving to do their best. But, Henry, I don't think most people think of sports competition in terms of its original meaning.

Forcing students into ranking and grading systems in schools (please, let's distinguish schooling from education) implies that learning is a scarce commodity that people have to fight over.

I see this idea as unsustainable in an era of teaching and learning abundance.

jenny said...

I agree with the Heisenberg principles on the education. It is essentially needed for the competitive world. It makes everyone to use their talent in a specific manner.

thoi said...

But I think only through competitions only we can found lot of talents and exposure from studends especially... So competing with other good until it not breaks the friendship...
by thoi trang