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Yong Zhao: PISA Peculiarities (2): Should Schools Promote a Competitive or Cooperative Culture?

PISA has many peculiar and surprising discoveries…

Should we encourage students to co-operate?

Yes, because according to PISA, the omnipotent judge of education policy and practice:

In about 78% of school systems, and on average across OECD countries, students scored higher in reading when they reported greater co-operation amongst their peers, after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools (as measured by the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status) (Table III.B1.8.10). (OECD, 2019, p. 122).

But wait. PISA also found:

In about 88% of the countries and economies that participated in PISA 2018, students who see themselves as competitive scored higher in reading than students who perceive themselves as less competitive (Figure III.8.4). (OECD, 2019, p. 123).

Furthermore, PISA reports:

The results clearly show that students who agreed or strongly agreed that they try harder when they are in competition with other people scored considerably higher than students who disagreed with the statement (a difference of about 12 score points, on average across OECD countries, after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools). (OECD, 2019, p. 124).

It seems that competition leads to higher scores in reading. There is more evidence from PISA:

In around 41% of the countries and economies that participated in PISA 2018, students performed better in the reading assessment when they reported a more competitive school environment, after accounting for socio-economic status. (OECD, 2019, p. 122).

But PISA also found:

… on average across OECD countries, the relationship between student competition and reading performance was slightly more positive amongst students who reported less competitive attitudes (negative values in the index of attitudes towards competition) than amongst students who reported more competitive attitudes (positive values in the index of attitudes towards competition). (OECD, 2019, p. 125).

Confused? And then:

on average across OECD countries, there was no association between student competition and reading performance. (OECD, 2019, p. 122).

Does it matter then to have a school culture that fosters cooperation over competition? I don’t think PISA offers any answer with sufficient certainty. The uncertainty and confusion PISA offers are expected because of the nature of PISA.

This is basically another one of PISA’s futile fishing expeditions. As I have written elsewhere, PISA has the bad habit of looking for things that would work universally to improve education or at least test scores and ignoring contextual factors that may actually play a more important role in the quality of education. In so doing, PISA does not (or cannot) have a coherent conceptual framework for understanding education as a contextual and situated phenomenon. As a result, it just throws various variables into the equation and wishes that some would turn out to be the magical policy or practice that improves education, without thinking how the variables act and interact with each other in specific contexts.

School culture of course plays a significant role in student achievement and well-being but a school culture cannot be simply characterized as oriented to competition or cooperation. A cooperative school culture can have competition and a competitive school culture can also be competitive, depending on the contexts. An individual can be cooperative and a cooperative individual can be competitive, depending on, again, the context. It is thus futile to treat competition and cooperation as dichotomous constructs. In fact, the PISA data show some interesting overlaps between school systems that reported most cooperation and most competition. For example, Albania, Malaysia, and Norway (3 out of 9 systems) are identified by PISA as both high in cooperation and competition (see Table 1). Likewise, two out of the 5 schools systems (Argentina and the Czech Republic) that reported the least competition are also among the top 5 least cooperative systems.

Moreover, how students perceive competition and cooperation may vary drastically across cultures. What is viewed as competition or cooperation may be entirely different in Albania, Singapore, Norway, Indonesia, and the United States. This is perhaps why “There are wide variations across school systems in the indices of student co-operation and competition (Figure III.8.1)” (OECD, 2019, p. 121).

More important, the effect of competition and cooperation can vary across culture as well. In some cultures, competition works to motivate students, but in some others, cooperation may be a stronger motivator. The variations can also be across tasks and situations. For example, schools may promote collaborative work and have students work in teams—while students within a team are cooperative but the teams are competitive.

Bottom line: PISA needs to stop fishing for culture-free and universally applicable policies and practices to improve education in the world.

Table 1. Most Cooperative and Most Competitive School Systems

Most Cooperative Most Competitive
Albania Albania
Austria Hong Kong (China)
Denmark Jordan
Iceland Korea
Indonesia Malaysia
Kosovo Malta
Malaysia Norway
North Macedonia Singapore
Norway United States

Data source: (OECD, 2019)

Table 2. Least Cooperative and Least Competitive School Systems

Least Cooperative Least Competitive
Argentina Argentina
Brazil Czech Republic
Bulgaria Estonia
Czech Republic Germany
France The Netherlands
Slovak Republic  

Data source: (OECD, 2019)

Table 3. More Cooperative than Competitive and More Competitive than Cooperative School Systems

More Cooperative than Competitive More Competitive than Cooperative
Austria Brazil
Croatia Brunei Darussalam
Denmark Ireland
Georgia Jordan
Germany Korea
Japan Malta
Netherlands Morocco
  New Zealand
  Saudi Arabia
  United Kingdom
  United States

Data source: (OECD, 2019)


OECD. (2019). PISA 2018 Results (Volume III): What School Life Means for Students’ Lives. Retrieved from

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Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He curre...