The Jesuits, who worked out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries one of the most successful educational techniques the Western world has seen, used the spirit of competition very strongly and variously. They treated it not as a method of making the boys learn, but as a way of helping them to learn by bringing out their own hidden energies. As well as pitting the best individual pupils against each other, they used the technique familiar to modern leaders of mass meetings, and balanced groups against groups, half the class against the other half, teams of six against each other, and finally the whole class against another class slightly more or less advanced. They got the best boys to challenge each other to feats of brainwork which would astonish us nowadays. A top-notch pupil would volunteer to repeat a page of poetry after reading it only once; another would offer to repeat two pages. (The Jesuit teachers paid the greatest attention to the development of memory. Even their punishments were often designed to strengthen the memorizing powers, making a late or lazy pupil learn a hundred lines of poetry by heart, and the like.) A group of specially gifted boys would challenge another—always under the smiling, flexible, encouraging, but canny Jesuit supervision—to meet them in debate on a series of important problems, and would spend weeks preparing the logic, the phrases, and the delivery of their speeches. Perhaps the fathers overdid it, although we do not seem to hear of nervous breakdowns among their pupils. Certainly they made more of the spirit of competition than we could possibly do nowadays. Yet that was part of the technique which produced Corneille and Moliere, Descartes and Voltaire, Bourdaloue and Tasso. No bad educational system ever produced geniuses.
It is, then, the teacher’s duty to use the competitive spirit as variously as possible to bring out the energies of his pupils. The simple carrot-and-stick principle does not work, except for donkeys. Really interesting challenges are required to elicit the hidden strengths of really complex mind. They are sometimes difficult to devise. But when established, they are invaluable. It is sad, sometimes, to see a potentially brilliant pupil slouching through his work, sulky and willful, wasting his time and thought on trifles, because he has no real equals in his own class; and it is heartening to see how quickly, when a rival is transferred from another section or enters from another school, the first boy will find a fierce joy in learning and a real purpose in life. In this situation—and in all situations involving keen emulation—the teacher must watch carefully for the time when competition becomes obsessive and the legitimate wish to excel turns into self-torture and hatred. Long before that, the competition must be resolved into a kindlier co-operation.
The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet
This reminds me of something I once read about race horses.