Is Competition Quakerly?
As a Quaker school, we approach much of what we do with an egalitarian eye: teachers are referred to by their first name, our faculty and staff parking lot has a very strict (and fair!) rotation, we do not rank our students, and we endeavor to make Friends Select accessible to as many people as possible through a robust financial aid program. Given these facts, how do academic competitions fit with the overall philosophy of the school? Is it antithetical to win?
I asked some department chairs and teachers to write about how academic competitions complement their curricular work in the classroom. Here are some of their responses.
Tucker Rae-Grant, STEAM Program Director, and Bob Courey, upper school math, share the following about the robotics club and competitions:
One of the wonderful things about our robotics club is that it was founded by students and continues to be a student-led activity. The competition that they participate in, the FIRST Tech Challenge, espouses the almost-Quakerly value of "coopertition," which is a serious commitment to pushing yourself to do your best while helping others to do theirs. This was our first year without the founding members of the club, so we were in a position of rebuilding our institutional knowledge around this very complex set of tasks. When we arrived at Central HS for our tournament on January 20th, our robot was only working intermittently. After consulting with some dedicated volunteers and members of other teams, our team, captained by Yunyi Anderson and Oliver Guo, held our own, hovering around fourth place until the final rounds. While we finished just-shy of the semi-finals, this was a great learning experience for everyone. We ended the day by donating our robot's fuse to another team that was continuing into the finals.
Abbi Smith, who created the Quizbowl team at Friends Select in 2015 and has watched it grow with great success in the past three years, has this to say:
The FSS Quizbowl program allows students to expand and deepen their knowledge while engaging in teamwork and competition. Individuals are motivated to research and learn about topics from a variety of academic areas (art, history, literature, science, music, current events to name a few) through their own curiosity and passions. Practices inevitably involve students sharing their learning with others, and students discover new interests from these discussions. A key component to competing in tournaments is how you function as a team; each member has their own specialty areas, and they grow to both rely on and support each other. Competing requires a level of risk-taking, and learning to do this in a safe and supportive environment during practices empowers members to do this effectively during tournaments. Participating in Quizbowl can spark curiosity and interest in new areas, can encourage students to take risks in their learning, and can provide students with the opportunity to learn the many values and skills inherent in being part of a team.
Natalie Mayer, one of the advisors of the Science Olympiad club (the other being Heather Paul), concurs with many of these ideas:
Science Olympiad Club enables students with an interest in math, science, and engineering to collaborate and strategize as a team, and also work with other Friends Select community members who may be experts in specific fields. Small groups of students within the club pick the events that are most interesting to them and determine how to best approach the specific challenge as a group. In general, challenges require students to build structures, perform a lab, or take a subject test. This year, students are preparing for events including: Helicopters, Disease Detectives, Anatomy and Physiology, Towers, and Mousetrap vehicles. With so much preparation leading up to the day, the actual day of competition is exciting. Students cheer each other on, and share with each other how they did. It's really exciting to see so much positive spirit around an academic sport!
Anne Wentling, the World Language Department Chair, also shows that there is a level of pride in competing with students outside of our own school:
The national language exams (in Spanish, Latin, and now offered in Chinese for the first time this year) allow students an opportunity to experience a sense of personal accomplishment and success in their language studies by measuring their proficiency and achievement using a standardized examination. Students demonstrate their proficiency in a range of skills and knowledge, ranging from listening, reading, speaking, writing, and culture, and receive recognition for notable performance at their level of study. These exams are optional for students who wish to challenge themselves. Minimal express preparation for the exams occurs in the classroom. The desire is that students succeeding in our language studies here will see a validation of that success when measured alongside students across the country.
Erin Pratt continues this line of thinking about personal excellence as she describes the school’s rationale for the American Math Competition:
The mission of the MAA's American Mathematics Competition (AMC) is to increase interest in mathematics and to develop problem-solving through a fun competition. At Friends Select, students are taught problem-solving strategies in each of their math classes, and they are given the opportunity to take some time to "struggle" with a problem and try different approaches to get to a solution. Students often work with classmates to come up with an efficient approach to a problem. Throughout the year the Mathletes club, consisting of 9th-12th-grade students, also works together on practice problems to prepare for the AMC. These practices are collaborative and a time for students to share their knowledge with one another and compare ideas. The AMC gives students the opportunity to use their acquired skills and knowledge to work on challenging questions independently, but it is not about competing against their peers, it is about the personal challenge and striving to achieve their individual best. If a student scores in the top 5% of all students nationwide, they are invited to participate in the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME).
In summary, academic competitions at Friends Select are about striving for excellence with passion, character, integrity, and love of learning, all in the middle of a supportive and caring community. Our competitions are not central to our work, though neither are they satellites. Teachers use the opportunity to expose students to new material and ways of thinking, to spark and deepen a love of learning, and to enhance an already strong academic program. Much like our approach to all that we do, we participate in these competitions in a holistic and caring way. Similar to our athletic program, we are striving for our personal best in the context of a supportive community while enjoying winning and sharing our talents widely. As department chairs Fred Kogan and Wendy Buckingham shared, “The Scholastic writing and visual arts awards allow our students to have a powerful voice that goes beyond the school community and to let their lives speak through the arts. The work is seen, read, heard and recognized throughout Philadelphia and the United States.” As a school that values individual voices and excellence, participation in such programs is very much aligned with who we are as a school.