Achieving a balance between competition and collaboration in the YL classroom – an #ELTchat summary (30/01/13)

A PLN for ELT Professionals

Achieving a balance between competition and collaboration in the YL classroom – an #ELTchat summary (30/01/13)

Many thanks to Noreen Lam who contributed this summary. You can follow her on Twitter here



Funky couple on the river bank

Photo taken by @leoselivan, courtesy of

On Wednesday January 30, we kicked off an #ELTchat session at 21.00GMT talking about achieving a balance between competition and collaboration in the YL classroom.  I was extra excited since this was something that I had been mulling over for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to suggesting till now, and finally it made the chosen topic.


Some people such as @marjorierosenbe, @esolcourses and @Wiktor_K came along even though they didn’t teach YL but were keen to see what everyone had to say.  Others, such as @shaznosel and @didolores was as gung-ho as me, being YL Ts that were keen to share thoughts.

Problems faced in YL classes.

@mariabossa suggested that competition is too hard among YLs, especially girls, who compete both in appearance as well as marks.  There was a bit of surprise from some and @shaznosel mentioned that she didn’t think girls were particularly competitive, but tended to show jealousy, which may seem like competition.


@Marisa_C suggested that it may have to do with local culture and @cerirhiannon said that mainstream education plays a big factor, with girls geeing the boys on to collaborate more in Spain.  @vmorgana teaches teens and say they are very competitive in general.

Nature or nurture?

It was agreed that competition seems to come naturally while collaboration needs some training, though lucky @cerirhiannon seems to have great students because she has observed that collaboration behind the scenes seems quite common in Spain e.g. helping each other with homework, meeting to complete projects etc.


@shaznosel said that when games are played, weaker ss are sometimes left out and it takes time to explain the concept of teamwork.  @Marisa_C reiterated what we all thought, that it’s more instinctive to compete than to collaborate, but the latter must be seen to bring something good to all.  @Wiktor_K pointed out that competition is very rarely communicative, and language is practiced better when collaborating.


@Marisa_C shared some interesting reading about the physiological reasons for collaborating or not  She pointed out that perhaps YLs are so competitive because they want to gain approval and Ts affection.  @theteacherjames mentioned that it may be beneficial for individuals to collaborate to obtain a personal gain.  Sounds very much like instinctive animal behaviour at work, with individuals being altruistic in order to increase their personal fitness! J

 When to teach collaboration?

@Marisa_C asked when would be a good time to introduce collaboration—day one, or wait? @mariabossa said day one is a must, though team making could be difficult when they are young, because they love being alone. @shaznosel said the sooner the better because collaboration also means accepting weaker ss into a group.  @bhrbahar thought that if introducing a new topic, it would be best to focus on individual work until ss gain more confidence in their abilities.

So how to teach collaboration?

@vmorgana suggests grouping ss accurately, especially YLs and it’s important to know them very well, know their learning styles etc. @cerirhiannon says that the task is important, and teens will happily rise to T’s expectation of collaboration.


@Marisa_C made an excellent point that it’s essential to teach not only how to collaborate and why, but also social language for doing so and shared a nice link with ideas on encouraging teamwork and language ideas here: as well as a recommended book called Classroom Dynamics for teambuilding.


@shaznosel commented that specific (non-book) learning goals are needed for some students, and scaffolding is key.  Everyone agreed that collaboration begins with Ts setting good examples by joining classes, team teaching, sharing materials and ideas, working on joint projects etc.  If ss see that Ts are learning from each other, hopefully this will trickle down to them.


@cerirhiannon suggested incorporating technology into lessons if the resources are available by saying that game consoles, tablets bring in natural collaboration for learning new games.


On that note, it is worth mentioning Graham Stanley and Kyle Mawer’s blog for learning through computer games They have also co-written a book about this called Digital Play.  What better way for Ts to set an example, by embracing new (and foreign) territory by learning computer games themselves and then bringing it to the classroom!  Try it, it’s addictive…. 😉


If using points systems (which many of us seem to do), @didolores mentioned that she does it based on good behaviours for group points, rather than win/lose terms.


Is competition all that bad?

@Marisa_C asked the big question here, and reminded us that in the adult world, it stimulates and drives people forward.  @theteacherjames agreed and questioned whether competition is unavoidable, because it’s part of human nature.


@esolcourses thought that if it goes hand in hand with respect for others then it’s good. @cerirhiannon said that for ss to compete against themselves to better their own scores can be a great thing, and competing against T (and winning!) always goes down well.


@theteacherjames asked whether competition and competitiveness are different, with the former possibly being good and the latter probably negative.  Maybe the problem with the former is that it suggests many losers and few winners.  As mentioned before, he thought maybe T should take the loser role so that ss don’t have to. But then does it still constitute a competition?


@shaznosel brought up the point of mixed ability classes, common to the YL world, and where competition can be demotivating for some. @cerirhiannon proposed having non-academic goals in games so that “weaker” ss can shine and not be weak in that aspect. Some examples include board races, timed challenges, memory tests that ss love and work well with mixed levels. @shaznosel replied saying that Ts can try and promote different aspects of language learning to boost self-esteem.


Various people agreed that working with learning styles and differentiating tasks towards varying strengths is key.  @toulasklavou questioned to what extent competition prevents learning and when we as Ts should set some boundaries.  Some people thought competition was a boost to learning whereas others said the reverse if it negatively affects self-esteem.  Ts need to recognize when weaker ss are feeling insecure and when the lesson aims are being lost due to ambitious ss.

Is collaboration that much better than competition?

@theteacherjames played devil’s advocate in order to get us to think about whether we weren’t addressing the pros of competition—that of promoting solo work, which is necessary for language learning.  @shaznosel countered by saying that collaboration prepares ss to understand the world around them and see how their abilities compare with other people.


What about one-to-one ss who don’t have anyone to collaborate with?  Do they suffer?  Many people agreed that for them, finding someone to collaborate with, or compete with outside of the classroom would help them track their own progress and strive for more.  T can also play the role of more of a collaborator as well.




There will always be difference in ability but as YL Ts, we have to constantly change activities anyway, so it’s a matter of finding a mix that caters to certain strengths and weaknesses, whether L2-related or not.  Internal motivation, constant competing with oneself to be better, combined with external stimuli as extra motivation results in an ideal learner!


@jankenb2 sums it up nicely by saying that a good project for ss has layers of collaborative and individual learning opportunities, just as in life!  Now if we could only find time to introduce more collaborative projects, amongst the list of things to cover from a coursebook….



Photo taken from by @leoselivan, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,