Parent Resource

Do Spelling Bees Value the Right Kind of Learning?

Spelling bee

by Day Halsey, Executive Director, Kiddovate

Today, a kindergartner can Google “how to spell n-u-n-a-t-a-k.” If the best spelling champion in the world competed against a computer, the computer would win. The machine would be flawless and fast, and would never need to rest. Spelling bees test the kind of thinking that computers have already mastered.

Spelling bees became popular in the 1840s. It was a time when education was sparse, and the ability to know and recite rules of spelling was rare. By the year 1870, when states finally had free elementary schools, the spelling bee was common. These spelling bees served a purpose; to elevate the importance of learning how to spell in a largely illiterate society.

It is 2018 and the recent National Spelling Bee generated millions of media impressions. Why? Do we still glorify this old fashioned test of knowledge, a competition of memorization that honors “skill and drill” style education?


Educators, policy makers, and parents often lament the fact that U.S. students are falling behind in academic performance, that we are not raising kids who will be competent in 21st century careers that require creative and critical thinking, innovation, teamwork, and technological mastery. Yet, our national media continue to idolize “the spelling bee” – an emblem of the type of learning valued in 1840. A competition that places value in a child’s ability to know and recite a set of memorized rules to spell words that many of us have never heard of and will never use.

This is not meant to minimize the accomplishments of the children who participate in spelling bees. But shouldn’t they be recognized for the deeper skills that helped them win, such as perseverance, grit, tenacity, hard work and hopefully passion?

The question isn’t whether or not spelling bee kids deserve accolades, it’s what are we praising.  Should we really honor them for memorization? Is that where we want today’s students to focus their efforts?

No way. The relevancy just isn’t there.

Consider this: concurrent with the Scripps Spelling Bee, the United States hosted the world finals of a massive global competition for kids called Odyssey of the Mind. Just 800 teams were invited, representing the most innovative and creative problem solving abilities from around the globe. For 5 days kids competed in complicated long term and spontaneous challenges across multiple categories.

We’re talking about small teams of kids, starting at age 8, building vehicles and weight bearing structures, developing movies, creating special effects, using technology, fabricating all kinds of innovative objects – even making musical instruments. Then incorporating these complex solutions into well practiced presentations with props, scenery, and strict technical requirements – all without an ounce of help from adults.

But where are the headlines about this? On our own soil we have thousands of kids proving that our students ARE competent in 21st century skills, and the news is silent.


By all measures, research, and evidence, programs like Odyssey of the Mind are moving our education system into the 21st Century.  Odyssey of the Mind is literally a showcase of creative and critical thinking, innovation, teamwork, and technological mastery. U.S. teams ranked in the top five performances for all problems and categories in all divisions at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals, against tough global competition from China, Poland, India, and others.

If we value education, the media needs to change the story. Countless headlines about the National Spelling Bee blasted on newspapers and news sites all over the world do not teach our kids that innovation matters. Why not shine the light on competitions that value 21st century thinking?

Odyssey of the Mind and similar organizations need our help to create evangelism for the kind of learning relevant for today’s students. The kind of inquiry-based experiences that emphasize the 5 C’s of 21st century thinking: Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and innovation, and global Competency.

If the media fails to recognize the feats of American students in these areas, we are clipping our own wings. The story of learning cannot and will not change until the value of these achievements becomes part of the media’s national conversation.

Who is with us? How do we get the media to lead the change? We want our kids to know that critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and global competency are core skills that our society values, honors and celebrates. Otherwise, we are fighting an even bigger battle to make education relevant, and the media is creating it’s own n-u-n-a-t-a-k – which means a mountain that has been completely encircled by a glacier..

Help us break the ice! If you agree, comment, post, share, tweet and spread this message.