Eighth-grader Navneeth Murali was “totally shattered and devastated” when he learned in April that the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held the following month was canceled. He has aged out of the competition and under current rules cannot participate next year. Like other competitive spellers, mathematicians, geography whizzes, and young scientists, it was a season of disappointments, as practically all academic competitions have been canceled.
When competitions are stopped and there seems nothing to win, it seems the students committed to these institutions do not stop studying.
We often think of studying after school to be a chore. The assumption is that youth want to do “fun” activities rather than academic ones. A school principal I spoke with said, “I can’t believe you’re going to find kids who are passionate about long division. I just don’t believe it.” The cancellation of these competitions presumably would give these kids a reason to finally relax.
Having interviewed dozens of children who compete in spelling bees and/or math competitions in elementary and middle school for my book, Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough, it is clear that they are passionate about what they are pursuing. Yes, studying is tedious. Even the most committed youth feel staring at worksheets can become “utter toil” at times. They put in hours each weekday and weekend — on top of homework — to these pursuits.
But while many start their academic pursuit because parents drag them, those who stick with it have a sincere interest. As one spelling contestant at a national finals competition told me, “I just viewed it more as fun than work.” Years later, former contestants appreciate how much they learned not just in their particular subject but also about the process of learning. They had confidence that they could tackle major challenges.
Stopping would give the wrong message, that the only reason to bother reviewing German-origin words and quadratic equations was to win the championship. Educators know that the emphasis should on the studying process and effort, not the outcome. The best way to alleviate the sense that all that studying was a waste is for youth to keep studying, for it affirms the fact that the youth has an interest in the subject and gains through the process of studying.
Just as a child should not stop practicing baseball or softball in the backyard because their championship game has been called off, the same applies to those training for academic competitions.
Rather than stop preparing, kids should study in a more relaxed manner. Children should find a new routine, one that dwells on the enjoyable parts of the subject rather than geared towards what weaknesses they need to work on in order to win. This should be a time to remind them what they enjoyed about their academic pursuits in the first place, before the pressure of the national competition came on, just like the ball player remembering what playing catch in the backyard used to feel like before the drills and practices for the big game got intense.
What’s more, one never knows what the preparation will lead to. A few weeks after feeling devastated, Murali was crowned a spelling bee champion in a national virtual bee hosted by two former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists. He has another chance later this summer to do it again in another national bee. The South Asian Spelling Bee (which Murali won last year) may also host an annual competition this summer.
Take it from a former Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist who has since coached spellers. Dev Jaiswal offered, “My advice for current eight-graders is to continue studying at a comfortable intensity. I would have been very disappointed if the spelling bee was ultimately canceled, but I would not think of my extra time spent studying as a waste.”
Pawan Dhingra is a professor at Amherst College and author of Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough. He appears in the Netflix documentary, Spelling the Dream.