Awards: One winner, many losers.

Awards: One winner, many losers.

“Schools are not about awarding the best and brightest, but developing the best and brightest.  Awards take away from this.  We can not let our own bias of our own school experience or beliefs get in the way of what research has told us about effective pedagogy.” — George Couros

“Recognizing every student is no more an exercise in mediocrity than believing all children should graduate from high school.” — Joe Bower

This week the topic of awards surfaced again on Twitter.  As a result, Vancouver Sun reporter Janet Steffenhagen posted part of my blog “Death of An Awards Ceremony” that described the decision parents and staff made to significantly alter the way we recognize kids.  Instead of our year-end awards ceremony, we decided to have a year-end honouring ceremony along with recognizing individuals throughout the year for their individual strengths and passions.  Awards ceremonies are zero-sum, meaning that although they create a few winners, they create many losers. Some great conversations are happening on Janet’s post so please chime in with your views here.

Through twitter and Janet’s post, a common opposing argument to ending awards is that if we get rid of awards we:

“should end all games in a tie”

“might as well get rid of championships”

“might as well eliminate sports teams too”

“are not preparing our kids for the competitive environment that is the ‘real world’”

Sport is huge in my life.  My friends, players and teammates will tell you: I am one of the most competitive players and coaches in the rink and on the court.  I have spent the majority of my adult life coaching volleyball, basketball, and track.  During this time, although the main goal was never to just win but more about the journey and process, I was involved in sports that resulted in a winner and a loser.  I am not against competition (there are still fun, healthy competitive games in schools and classrooms); I am against awards ceremonies and events that place emphasis on the result rather than on the learning.

The key difference between sport and learning is that you CHOOSE to play sports and you go in with the knowledge that there is a winner and a loser.  Students should not go to school to win; students should go to school to learn.  Students should not go to school to compete for some award at the end of the year; students should go to school to collaborate and learn from teachers and peers.  We rob our children of intrinsic motivation by continually offering extrinsic motivators.

Also, for those who say, “if we get rid of awards, we might as well get rid of test scores and grades and entrance exams”; I say: ABSOLUTELY, these also do not promote learning.  I will, however, leave this conversation for another post.

To many people, unfortunately, learning does seem to be a sport.  For those people who believe this, here are some questions to consider:

  • When/why did learning in school become this zero-sum activity that creates winners and losers?
  • Are certain areas of school favoured over others?
  • How do you award the top learner?  How is one learner better than another?
  • How much do politics play into awards in schools?
  • When did learning in school become a place where “some students need that competition to excel”?
  • Is it more about the parents wanting their kids to have awards or is it about the kids needing awards?
  • Who has taught these kids that awards are important?
  • What stays with you for life – the intrinsic motivation of knowing that one can learn or the extrinsic motivation of trophies, certificates and prizes?
  • Do we give out awards for top academic child in the family?  If an argument is that we “need to prepare students for the competitive real world”, why do most not do this within their own families?  (I am still awaiting for me to get to this “competitive real-world” that people keep telling me about – please see my post “School IS the real world for our students”)

Obviously, I am being a little cynical with these questions but hopefully it makes people reflect on the flaws in having learning viewed as a sport with winners and losers determined at awards ceremonies.

If all students can excel in something and all students can learn, how can there be losers?  The answer: hand out awards for learning and make learning a sport.

We need to work to see the value and strength in EVERY child, EVERY day.  If we resort to recognizing only a select few at the end of the year, we are failing the majority of our students.  Let’s tap into our students’ interests and work to honour our students for the strengths and passions within each one of them.

Learning is NOT a sport, it is a journey; an enjoyable journey that never ends.

UPDATE: PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO (added from Sue Downey’s comment.. perfect!)