Competition and co-operation in the #activelearning classroom


Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I have been reading a great paper this morning on the use of Instagram memes by students studying art at Central St Martins (Burns et al., 2016). Amongst the many themes present in the paper, I picked up on one of several ideas that helps me to think through the implications of co-production as a learning philosophy. Within my study, I am examining the value of co-operation (rather than collaboration) as a way to understand the learner-generated context of the hybrid learning studio – that is, a different way of conceptualising social learning space.

One of the ideas behind this thinking is the relationship of competition to co-operation. Are they mutually exclusive? Can they be co-present ideologically and practically? Can a single activity be framed as both a competitive and a co-operative endeavour? Hence, my recent postings on gamification and co-production, for example. Until recently, I have always assumed that co-operation and competition are opposites and while I always challenge binary conceptions, if there ever was a valid exception, this would be it. Surely. I have come to realise this is not the case.

I have always been uncomfortable with competitiveness. I am not driven that way and I tend to rile against anything that values one person over another. I believe everyone has value and that society’s challenge is to create conditions that allow any person’s worth to flourish! Simple. Possibly naive. But it suits me! So, competition and the attitudes it suggests (e.g. ‘me against him’, ‘me or him’, ‘I am better than you’, ‘I deserve more than you’, etc.) always seem counter to an inclusive learning environment. I know there are good pedagogic arguments for competition, but you won’t get me espousing them here! Well, this post heads in that direction…

So, you can see that co-operation and competition, as dimensions of a learning philosophy, have a certain frisson.

Returning to the article by Burns et al., the students use Instagram to post memes (selected images superimposed with key quotes from the literature they are studying). Teams of students were given 30 minutes to craft their own Instagram post. They explain,

“Students made brief presentations citing the aesthetic and conceptual rationale behind their image or video. The class (and members of the external public) could register their approval or disapproval by ❤ing or not ❤ing the post. An element of competition became important in EPO [Every Phone Out] lessons. Once every group had presented, their respective scores of ❤s were counted and a winning team announced.”

To analyse this, the team-based approach is co-operative. Individuals collaborate towards a common goal in a co-creative activity (co-creation is different to co-production, being concerned with the end-user adding or giving value to the product) – to co-construct a meme and post it to a common space (the shared Instagram account). Posts were then the focus of a studio crit. A ‘crit’ is perhaps the educational epitome of co-production in which effort is shared for the common learning good, representing a principle of Edgar Cahn’s model of core economy; an economy which is neither market-driven nor professionally determined. (Cahn, 2000)

So far in this description, the pedagogy is clearly co-operative: everyone is working together with both individual and social learning outcomes in mind. The activity is mutually beneficial with the value of one team’s endeavour being offered in reciprocation of the effort of the other teams. A classic 2+2=5 scenario – the sum of our parts is greater than the whole.

The pedagogy is working fine, but then it gets a boost because the ‘crit’ is elevated beyond the usual physical location of the studio into the ‘instaphere’ of the socially mediated world of Instagram. It is not only possible to introduce another social dynamic, but arguably inevitable that an informal form of peer assessment, through ❤ing, would happen. And, given this, the competing element of totalling the number of ❤s received by each team becomes an added layer to the design. It gamifies the approach and adds some competitive fun to the method. In fact, it seems to make an important statement that helps to define the formative nature of the activity – ‘this is serious and academic, but it is also a demonstration of the value of learning together as a supportive group’.

This statement clarifies that both co-operation and competition, in this example, are mostly motivational factors. However, the ethos of the studio pedagogy also leads to the co-creation of new knowledge, supporting the theoretical basis of the course knowledge is expounded and expanded through the students’ interrogation and exemplification of what they discover and make collectively. In this example of a co-productive learning environment, there is value in working together on complementary tasks (the different memes each team produces) and this gives us ‘co-operation’: a shared commitment to activity of mutual benefit. Coinciding with this, the example demonstrates competitive learning value as a collective framework of evaluating the essential outcomes from each piece of work and the overall meaning of the conceptual basis of the study.

Yes, co-operation and competition are mutually compatible frames of learning!


Burns, E., MacLachlan, J., Charles Rees, J. (2016). Everybody phones out: teaching experiments with Instagram. Spark: UAL Creative Teaching and Learning Journal, 1(2). Online at:

Cahn, E. (2000). No more throwaway people: the co-production imperative. Washington: Essential Books.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation, Active Learning, Assessment & Feedback, BYOD, Co-operative pedagogy, Creativity, Gamification, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, PhD, Social Media for Learning, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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