The history of spelling competition goes back to Elizabethan times, when an English schoolmaster wrote a book that included an exercise in which two students squared off against each other to spell words correctly. In the United States, references to a spelling bee can be found as early as 1850, and over time, such competitions led in 1925 to the establishment of the National Spelling Bee.
Today the National Spelling Bee, which in 2014 had 281 spellers competing in the preliminary and final rounds, is televised by the international sports network ESPN. This view of a spelling bee as a competitive entertainment event is part of the success of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the award-winning musical being presented by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the Harriet Jorgensen Theatre from Nov. 20 to Dec. 7.
As the characters move through the backstory of their lives in flashbacks during the spelling bee, the theme of competition is ever-present in the setting – a school gymnasium, with its floor lined as a basketball court.
University faculty say that competition in the classroom and on the playing field can provide many lessons to students, although it may have a down side for some.
The positive side is that competition can enhance success, help us to perform better in some cases, where you may not realize you have the resources inside you,” says Adrienne Macki-Bracconi, assistant professor of dramatic arts in the School of Fine Arts. “The competitive spirit drives you to overcome those obstacles. On the other hand, it can provide anxiety, and cause you to underperform.”
Scott Brown, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology and UConn’s NCAA faculty athletics representative, says competition surfaces in many parts of life – for grades, for jobs, for grant proposals, or for a starting position on an athletic team.
“Competition teaches us about motivation,” Brown says. “It drives us, develops a work ethic, because if you’re competing for something, you’re looking around seeing there are other people working toward that.”
He says learning how to cope with failure is as important a part of the competitive process as success. “As teachers we frequently get in front of students and show them the model problem solver. It’s also important for us to show students –whether undergraduates, K-12, or graduate students – what you do when you fail.”
Joseph Renzulli, director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Neag School of Education, points to the role of individual choice in deciding to take part in a competition such as a spelling bee.
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