Evolutionary Education - Moving Beyond Our Competitive Compulsion
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Ed News

An Interview with Brent Zeller: Cooperation Not Competition?

Michael F. Shaughnessy - 11.9.09
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)  Brent, I understand you have written a new book. What's it all about?

Evolutionary Education challenges the very foundation of our society. It creates a clear vision for our species survival and transcendence. To realize this vision we need to move beyond our current competitively based education system which, for a majority of people, leads to self-doubt, fear, anger, sadness, overly aggressive behavior, performance anxiety, resignation, and limited benefits, toward a new paradigm based on a non-competitive model that generates inspiration, innovation, excellence, inner confidence, peace, love, and joy. 

By moving to a non-competitive learning system people will learn to work together to achieve goals and thereby see each other as partners instead of competing against each and seeing each other as adversaries. This approach will allow our species to eventually move out of our evolutionary rut that continues to give us war, poverty, hunger, greed, racism, ignorance, and a continuing degradation of our environment, as well as all our other social ills.

This is the larger purpose of Evolutionary Education. To help our species evolve and finally achieve our virtually unlimited potential.

2) I am familiar with the concept of cooperative learning. Where does the teacher fit it?

The teacher plays a valuable part in this transformation. When a teacher is fully competent in the skills and knowledge they are passing on to students they will be able to speed up and smooth out the learning process for all participants. Learning anything to a high level is a long-term process whether the model is competitive or cooperative. I've just found that a non-competitive model is both physically and psychologically healthier. By modeling cooperative behavior the teacher will lead the students to a better understanding of why working together is preferable to seeing others as adversaries.

3)  Brent, most of the teachers I talk with ( and I talk with plenty) indicate their main problem is children being inappropriately mainstreamed or included in their classes. Your thoughts?

This is a big problem with the current competitively based education system. The fatal flaw of a competitive learning system is that it passes people along with someone knowing just 70% of the material in a subject. This is the C student. The problem is that if someone knows only 70% of the most basic material, that means that he or she doesn't know at least 30% of the material, basically one third. How can anyone one expect someone to keep advancing to higher levels without complete comprehension of the more basic material? Yet this is how our educational system works. Even if someone gets 90% they still don't understand 10% of the material. 
I heard the other day, and I haven't confirmed this, but in California you can only fail someone once in a grade and then he or she must be promoted to the next grade. If this is true, it's pretty ridiculous.

4)  In your system, would grades and tests still exist?

There would be tests, but no grades. My approach is modeled on the Kumon method for teaching math and languages. In this approach, for every subject, there would be developed a series of many tests beginning with the most basic material and gradually moving to the most advanced. As in the Kumon method, students would only move to the next test after getting 100% on the previous material. This way students demonstrate mastery of the more basic material allowing them to be able to build on that material and then grasp the more complex ideas. Grades would be eliminated because it's either 100% or you do it again.

5)  Certainly, stress is pervasive in our schools- teachers are retiring earlier and earlier and turnover is rampant. How would your system address this dilemma?

By removing competition from the learning process it enables everyone to learn at his or her own pace. There is no predetermined time line for development, no rush to development. This allows everyone to relax, including teachers.

Many kids hate going to school. Some like the social aspects, but education wise there is not much love. A non-competitive system will begin to turn that around, so that will also lower stress and increase enjoyment of learning. If kids like coming to school this will motivate teachers to do more and want to stay involved for more time. 

What I have found in my non-competitive tennis program, Effortless Tennis, is that when I tell people there is no competition in the program it is as if a huge weight has been lifted off their shoulders. It seems like for the first time in a long time, maybe their whole lives, they feel that they can relax in the learning process.

Because the intensity of the competitive system has been so deeply wired into all our memories, it takes several years for people to really feel the true nature of being relaxed. It is amazing to see the difference in people from when they first come to the program and then a year later. It is like night and day. Very exciting and quite rewarding. In fact, personally, when I removed all competition from my tennis program in 1992, it took about 4 years to realize what being completely relaxed on a tennis court felt like. I had played competitive sports from the time I was 6 and competitive tennis since I was fourteen, so all those years programmed tension deep within me.

In my Keys to Peak Performance, relaxation is number 2 on the list, after joy and preceding concentration. From my research it is impossible to experience true relaxation in a competitive environment.

6)  School, education, teaching and learning is somewhat like tennis, but also is quite different. How is tennis similar to  learning and dissimilar?

• In any subject there are fundamentals that need to be mastered in order to develop advanced skills.

• In whatever you are teaching, you need to interact with people different from yourself and convey the information that is necessary for them to understand the subject material.

• Both require a lot of mental activity. People seem to associate teaching tennis or any physical skill with somehow not using your mind, that it is only a physical activity, and that in academics you use your mind more. That's just not true. Ask any high level sports coach or athlete and they will tell you that excelling at sports is at least 85% mental.

• Obviously, the big difference with a physical activity compared to academics is that you have physical action that has to be integrated with mental action. In academics you can read something and then stop and ponder that idea until you grasp it. In a physical activity like tennis there is no time for thinking. You have to pattern efficient actions into your cellular memory and then allow them to come out automatically. No one can attain peak performance and play "in the zone" while trying to "think" their way through.

7)  Brent, I have done some study of comparative education. The Soviet Union is different from Africa, which is different from Australia. In your mind is any one country's system better than any others?

I don't think there is any one country's system that is the answer. What we need to do is take the best elements from each system and blend them together with the best elements from every other system. One of my favorite sayings is, "Everyone has a piece of the puzzle." 

8)  What have I neglected to ask ?

Why have I written Evolutionary Education?
I wrote Evolutionary Education because, as I became aware of the world around me during the 1960s, I started noticing so many problems that I couldn't just ignore. It didn't make any sense to see what an amazing species we were with all our inventions, masterpieces of art, and generosity, and yet at the same time witness man's inhumanity to virtually everything on the planet. I had to find an answer to why things like war, poverty, hunger, greed, racism, ignorance, and a continuing degradation of the environment seemed so prevalent in our world. I wanted to find a root cause, and see if was there was something we could do about improving the situation. It took over 35 years to find the common denominator, and then another 5 years to write Evolutionary Education.

9)  Where can interested readers get a copy of your book? DO you have a web site?


You can get a copy of the book by going to my website or to amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com. There is also an e-book and audiobook version on my site. The audiobook is also available on Amazon.

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