I am pleased to have Brian Barry (@nunavut_teacher) as a guest blogger.  Brian is  a Grade 9 Math/Science teacher from Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada who is passionate about education technology and human motivation.  His thoughts on motivation, including rewards and punishment, continue to inspire me as an educator.  For more thoughts from Brian, check out his blog, Against the Wind.

By Brian Barry

When I have the energy I will engage people on why I disagree with awards in school.  The retort I hear most to support awards is, “Well, it’s like that in the ‘real world.’”

Inspired by Rick Lavoie’s talk about competition, I decided to engage today.  I asked a couple of friends a few questions.  (One was a teacher and the other was not.)

I asked if a 120 lb wrestler should be competing against a 200 lb wrestler at the Olympics? They answered, “No.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not fair. They should be competing against their own weight class in order to make it fair.” I agreed. (I also noted that the wrestlers choose to wrestle and train for the Olympics. They were not forced to do it.)

Next, I asked the teacher, “Do you have different reading levels in your class?”

“Yes, there is a wide range.”  So I asked why is it fair to be giving out an award for “Best reader” in your class if it is not a fair contest?  I also noted students don’t walk into class with a choice to compete for that award. It is a given.  The competition is forced upon them.  Indeed, when I framed the anti-award argument in that way, I made some head way with them.

Rick Lavoie notes two differences in competition in schools as compared with the “real world.”

  1. In the world outside of school, people only compete when they want to.
  2. We only compete against peers.

So, if you want to wrestle you choose to do that against others who choose to wrestle. Further, you wrestle against your peers- the same weight class.

In school, students compete against classmates for awards. However, the competition is not a choice as it is thrust upon them.  Moreover, that competition is not against their peers. People may be in the same grade but have different abilities. (Note: When using peer in this paragraph I mean a person who is equal to another in abilities.)

Moreover, Rick Lavoie also notes the following:  Only people who feel they have a chance of winning will compete.  Thus, the competition in class only works for a few.  Indeed, competition creates an atmosphere where students see each other as obstacles, instead of seeing them as team or group members working for a common cause- learning.

I submit to you, as Rick Lavoie does, that it’s time to celebrate personal best, not the best. So, the question still remains: Why are students competing for  awards in school again? It sure does not reflect the so called “real world.”