19 MARCH 2015

Empowering Youth - Competition and Collaboration

Empowering Youth - Competition and Collaboration

Two very different prompts have got me thinking about competition and collaboration and how they are so intertwined. The first is The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition which Cambridge University Press sponsors. And the second is the publication of Literacy as Numbers which sets out a critical analysis of the reliance placed by politicians across the world on international comparative measures of literacy to draw conclusions on education systems.

The essay competition and international league tables present different faces of competition and collaboration. The essay competition emerges from the collaboration that is the Commonwealth, 53 member states, with shared values working together on human rights and development goals. It gives young people the opportunity to compete with their peers across the Commonwealth for individual recognition. International educational league tables represent competition at the system level, originating from the collaboration of countries wishing to understand how their country’s education performs in relation to others to understand the need for reform, and to be able to identify the highest performing systems to learn from and collaborate with.  

One of last year’s winning essays took competition or “kiasu” in Singaporean slang as its theme. Selina Xu, age 16, from Singapore gave her perspective: “the prevalence of the word in our daily conversations and thoughts points to the ingrained culture of competition in the lives of my fellow countrymen and more pertinently, the world.” 

This idea of competition being ingrained in culture resonates with the analysis presented in several chapters of Literacy as Numbers of measurement as a “new mode of regulation that produces new truths, new ways of seeing and new realities.”  However, the book also makes the point that what is assessed is not necessarily what we would like to assess but what currently can be assessed. For example, PISA tried assessing writing but “the cross-cultural language effect seemed too high to be comparable.”

In contrast, the form of the essay offers a particular opportunity for creativity of expression; the potential to try out and develop ideas –an elegant turn of phrase, evocative description, the opportunity to craft one’s words - and revisit and rework them without time and comparability constraints. Selina’s essay illustrates this:

“In the haze of sweltering afternoons, the language teacher who gesticulates wildly as he exalts the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers presents the words as a gift to his languid students – “kiasu” is the fighting spirit he wants then to have, the competitive desire to secure top grades: this is the spirit stemming from centuries of educational masochism that is deep-rooted in the Asian psyche.

The many dimensions and nuances of the word “kiasu” bestow upon it a curious position in our culture. We use it frequently and flippantly – on the surface, we appear to be criticising a fear of failure when we see it in those around us (“Such a kiasu person!”); deep within, behind every instance of such a critique is a begrudging respect for the person’s drive for success.“

10,000 entries, written in English, demonstrate mastery of the English language, frequently the second or third language of the author (See the post 'Bilingual Education - Necessity or Luxury' for a discussion on the merits of Bilingual Education). For example, the senior winner last year, Raniya Hosain, age 15, from Lahore encourages the reader to visualise Pakistan through a vividly described scene of market life: 

“There is a little old man who sells fruit around the corner, with a bald head, and eyes that have a twinkle that even decades of tears for a son lost in a drone attack cannot extinguish. He sells fruit for the best prices and has more need for the money than the rest, so the faithful buyers staunchly ignore the fact that the apples are a little dried up, or that the oranges are smaller than those in the other sellers carts. He sits under a giant, paisley umbrella given to him by one of his older buyers.

The reason that this man’s story stood out was that his life and the people who were a part of it ARE Pakistan. So if anyone ever asked me what Pakistan had to give to the commonwealth, I would tell them this story: The story of dried up apples, toothless smiles, stupid toys, juvenile stories, raucous laughter and crystal tears. The story of our people, the story of our country.”

The competition offers young people a unique early opportunity and motivation to compete as individuals on the world stage. Previous winners of the Commonwealth essay competition include Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore and writer Elspeth Huxley. This year’s theme is A Young Commonwealth - chosen because half of the Commonwealth’s population is under the age of 18. One of the titles is “What do you hope to achieve in your lifetime?” We’re looking forward to reading the entries and exploring their “kiasu” and aspirations for the future.

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