Ed Tech Innovation–#4: Introduce (a) competition

A short while ago I looked at the value of setting competitions and of celebration (see Lessons from the world of sports: #8 The rule of celebration). In this, the fourth part of the mini-series about returning to work and starting the new school year, I’d like to explore this theme from a different angle or two.

Some thoughts on competitiveness and losing

Winners!First, at the risk of sounding hopelessly out of date and horrendously politically incorrect, I happen to believe that a spirit of competitiveness is not merely healthy, but essential. One of the potentially excellent outcomes of the Olympics and Paralympics will, I hope, be the realisation and acknowledgement that wanting to win by outdoing someone else can be an excellent motivator.

Equally important, I think, is that losing, in the technical sense of not coming first, doesn’t have to be experienced or seen as a reflection of a person’s value as a human being. We’ve suffered for many years from the ridiculous notion that it would be a terrible blow to someone’s self-esteem not to be judged as excellent. (I told a class back in 1975 that I was introducing a new grading system in which everyone would automatically receive a grade A for any work they handed in – but that some people would gain A+, others A++ and so on, up to A+++++; so this is nothing new. I was joking with the students, by the way!) If you don’t believe me about the self-esteem comment, just reflect on the attitude of the people who didn’t gain medals or gold medals in the recent games. As far as I know, none of them said “That’s it, proof positive that I m a worthless waste of space.” They all seemed to be really pleased for the people who did  win, and looked forward to doing better next time. For them, it was the taking part and the spirit of camaraderie that mattered.

All of which is to say that I don’t see why there would be dire consequences if you were to introduce an element of competition into your ICT curriculum. But the nature of the competition needs to be considered.

The Three types of competition

There are two basic kinds of competition, those in which the winners are random and those which require some thought.

An example of a random competition would be where you pull someone’s name out of a hat and award them a prize. There’s nothing wrong with that – it goes on in conferences all the time – but it does suffer from the disadvantage that there’s little incentive to do very much to be entered. A possibly better variation on this theme would be to enter only those who had attended all or most of your lessons or handed in every project on time. Even then, there could be mitigating circumstances for some students which would render such an approach unfair.

An example of a non-random competition would be where you ask students to do something that requires some thought, like creating an app or designing an e-safety poster.

There is a halfway house, which I will mention for the sake of completeness. That is where there is an element of thought and a random element. For example, if you set a test in which the questions were along the lines of “What is the name of the device that people use for printing their documents from a computer?”, and then entered all the correct entries into a prize draw.

This sort of competition could be useful for some classes or in particular circumstances. Obvious applications are with younger students or those with special educational needs. However, you might want to use this sort of approach if the topic is fairly new and you want to provide an incentive for students to learn certain terms or concepts, or simply as a bit of fun.

This is probably not relevant here, but if you were going to run a competition in which success is a matter of luck, and open it to the outside world and/or charge a fee for entry (eg as part of a fund-raising effort), just check the law relating to competitions in your country. In some countries, for example, a pure luck competition is regarded as as a lottery, and is subject to the rules on gambling!

Competitiveness without a competition

Can you introduce competitiveness without having a competition as such? Yes, and in my opinion the way to do so is to give honest feedback and tell it how it is. For example, if you set some work like designing and creating an app, and a student produces something that doesn’t work, doesn’t address the things you asked them to address or is shoddy, untidy or otherwise horrible, do not say “Well it’s the process and the effort that count.” I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to fly on a plane in which the  software doesn’t work, but which was signed off anyway so as not to hurt the programmer’s feelings! By all means praise the effort, but please, please, please also say why the work is not good enough as it stands, otherwise how will they be able to improve?

Ideas for competitions

If you wanted to actually set a (non-random) competition, what sort of challenges could you set within the context of an ICT course? Here are seven suggestions:

  • Design and create  an app for use in the school or local community.
  • Design and create  a computer game.
  • Design an online magazine for the school.
  • Design a website for a local business.
  • Locate some artefacts using geocaching.
  • Create a geocaching challenge.
  • Write a program or program an existing application to carry out a particular set of tasks.

That’s hardly a definitive list, but hopefully provides a starting point.

Judging the entries

Have a think about who will judge the entries. If it’s a class competition you may wish to judge them yourself and be done with. But if you want the competition to carry more authority you should consider other options. (That is no reflection on you, just simply an example of familiarity breeding – well, not contempt, but a taking for granted.) Possible contenders include:

  • Other teachers of ICT. For instance, you could judge a colleague’s class, while s/he judges yours.
  • Other, non-ICT specialist, teachers.
  • Someone from the local community, eg from business and/or the local council.
  • A parent.
  • Your local Member of Parliament or the equivalent outside the UK.
  • A ‘big name’ (if you happen to live near Bill Gates, for example, what are you waiting for?!)


Whatever the nature of the competition, consider the publicity angle. If, for example, you set a competition involving a prize draw for an iTunes token, details of the competition and the winner could go into the school’s newsletter and the school’s blog. You could involve the kids in this too, by having them blog about the event.

For a more ambitious competition, consider the local press, who are always hungry for stories.

Warning: unless you wish to limit the length of your career fairly rapidly, I would very much recommend getting all ideas for publicity approved by whoever deals with such matters in your school. There is likely to be little that is as career-limiting as the experience of the Headteacher or Principal opening the local paper only to see your ugly mug staring back, without prior approval!