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Is a School Awards Ceremony the BEST We Can Do?

Questioning Awards

I was recently asked by educator Larry Ferlazzo to share my views on awards ceremonies as part of his article on Ideas for The Last Two Weeks of School. Here are my thoughts:

The final few weeks of school are often the time for meeting, choosing, and awarding the winners at our schools.  Three years ago, our school made the decision to move away from awards ceremonies and consider other ways to honour all of our students.

Although I believe we need to move away from awards I also know this is a difficult decision in most schools as there are often lengthy traditions of trophies and awards.  I am not advocating we lower expectations nor am I stating that every child should get some “top _____ award”; however, as we observe our formal year-end awards ceremonies, I strongly encourage you to reflect upon the following questions:

  1. How many students have strengths and have put forth great efforts but are not awarded?

  2. What impact does a child’s parents, culture, language, socioeconomics and current/previous teachers have on the winners/losers?

  3. Does choosing a select few students as winners align with our school mission and vision?

  4. Are there other ways we can honour and showcase excellence?

  5. Is there a specific criteria or standard that must be met to achieve the award?  If yes, then can more than one person be honoured or is it simply about awarding one person that is better than his/her peers in a specific area chosen by the school?

  6. How does a quest for an individual award align with a culture that encourages teamwork and collaboration?

  7. If we honoured and showcased student learning in a variety of ways throughout the year, would a year -end awards ceremony be necessary?

  8. Do students have a choice on whether or not they enter this competition?

  9. If awards are about student excellence and motivation in the “real world”, why do we not host awards ceremonies for our top children in our homes?

  10. If we are seeing success in encouraging inquiry-based learning, focusing on formative assessment and fostering a growth mindset, how can we defend a ceremony that fosters a fixed mindset and mainly showcases winners often based on grades and/or scores?

I believe we need to honour and highlight achievements and student learning but I wonder… is an awards ceremony that recognizes only a select few, and is often held a few days before our students leave, the BEST we can do?

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Host celebration of learning events throughout the year (or one at the end of the year) in which students highlight/share examples and demonstrations of a key part of their learning.

  • Host honouring assemblies in which each student is recognized at a point during the year not through an award but through stories and examples of his/her learning, strengths, and interests

  • Encourage class/department events in which each class showcases and shares areas they have been highlighting in their learning

  • Combine the above events with parent/family luncheons so more time can be spent sharing the stories.

  • Share online the wonderful work students and staff do in our schools. Provide digital windows that highlight various stories of learning.

Although there is no single best way to acknowledge the efforts and achievements of our students, we must be aware of our school traditions and cultures and also work together to reflect upon and challenge current practices to create positive change that seeks to honour ALL of our students.

For links to posts on awards ceremonies from a variety of parents and educators, please check out Rethinking Awards Ceremonies.

 

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, assessment, and human motivation.

13 Comments

  1. I think gets at two different issues.

    1. Is school supposed to be governed by social norms or economic norms? If social, then it’s more like a family and we should expect learning to be a natural, social phenomenon. If economics, we should expect a consumer mentality, complete with awards shows. But . . . if we got with economic, don’t be shocked when there is a lack of empathy and compassion or even a bad case of rampant cheating. That’s the byproduct of a consumer mentality. Best bang for your buck.

    2. What will motivate people more: intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? I learn more and do better work when I am intrinsically motivated. I’m not sure if that’s true of all students, but that seems to be the general trend as well.

    • Hey John – these are the same questions that go through my mind… I think many of us have the feeling of what is right in our gut but then are pressured by external factors to do things in certain ways.
      I also realize that motivation is a bit of a continuum and not black and white… the key for us to focus on encouraging the intrinsic, especially “those” kids that are driven by rewards.
      I am concerned with the economic norms guiding what we do as we have seen the problems with this in both the economic world and society as a whole.
      As always, I appreciate your thoughts on these types of topics…

  2. Thanks for framing things as you did on this, Chris. Good refresher!

    John’s comment resonates with me too. I think I may have commented on other posts regarding my own struggle with taking one approach at home with my kids and in parenting and then working/meshing with a different one at their school. The award shows start too young… imo 🙂

  3. How many admin agree with you but are not willing to take the leap to something better? We need courageous leadership if we are ever going to go away from something that we have accepted as a “norm”, yet also know is damaging.

    • I think a number of admin are starting the conversation. I think this is a different conversation in elementary schools as we know students do well in grade K-3 without awards but they often start when grades are given in grade 4. So if no awards work for schools in grade 3, why would it no suffice in grade 4? Also, I think the movement away from awards is just the start of the conversation about how we honour student learning in schools. As you know, once the awards culture changes in a school, it just becomes the norm.

  4. I think it is better to give one award only to one person. So that every student can have same chance to get an award. Award domination may affect on making other students jealous and stuff.

    • Hey Stephen – you are right about award domination. I think we need to be cautious about awards as this may become a bit of a hierarchy of awards and we end up creating awards for people so they get one. I would rather see us just speak about and honour all students throughout the year so there is no awards necessary at the end of the year. Overall, the point you made can lead to a good conversation in schools. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I get where you are coming from Chris, I really do but I think schools do a good job of showcasing what kids can do (at least in the schools I am involved in) and recognizing them accordingly. The awards ceremonies are just one piece of a larger recognition mechanism.

    In my opinion this school based mechanism has two parts. The school side, which creates opportunities for kids to shine and the student side where the individual has to step up and take this opportunity.

    The other thing at work here is that not all kids do their shining in school. Many kids shine in a world outside of school and get recognized accordingly by an entirely different community. As a graduation transitions teacher I see this ALL THE TIME… and these kids are hardly ruined by not getting recognition in the school setting.

    Finally, there are some kids who hate recognition… I was one of them. On the extraordinarily rare occasion that I did get an award (twice) in my less than glorious academic career, I didn’t even show up for the ceremony. Under the radar is the way I like to live, this is why I love blogging. I never have to face anyone unless I want to.

    Again, I see where you are going with this but I do think awards ceremonies have value and doing away with them just because every student in a 1500 person school isn’t getting an award is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Hey Keith – I agree with you on some of your points. I think we need to reflect on what works for our students and this make look different based on what happens throughout the year in schools – because, as you said, the awards can be one piece. I also know that in a HS the conversation is much different.
      I don’t think we need to do away with awards because not everyone gets one… there are many concerns that I have with them – including hierarchies of skills, focusing on extrinsic, not sharing the stories of learning, focusing on competition, being a relative win (all depends on who your peers are), etc. IN our school, movement away from awards has been one of the catalysts to conversations about how to honour children more often throughout the year.

      Although I am not a fan of awards in schools, I also agree that we should not just throw them out without talking about the implications of this – it will depend on the cultures within the school.

      I always appreciate your well-thought perspectives on topics so thank you so much for your comment!

  6. I’ve had this conversation with several administrators, including in my home district. I generally concur with your suggestions.

    However, it troubles me to hear an administrator emphatically argue against academic awards and in the next breath explain why we must continue to have athletic awards, not only bestowed but loudly trumpeted.

    • I hear you, Mark. As a coach, I really struggled with athletic awards too. We worked so hard as a team with each player playing a key role and then we state that certain people are more important than the team. The silly part of athletic awards are that the players who generally win them already have closet fulls of all-star and MVP awards from games and tournaments. I have less of an issue with tournament all-stars selected by someone else than I do with me, as a coach, choosing certain players to be recognized over others.

      Sorry I missed this comment for so long… thanks for commenting.

  7. Hi Chris,

    I totally respect your perspective, and I can see where you are coming from. I agree that awards may make students who don’t receive them feel marginalized, however, is this not the case with any type of award ceremony? As an educator, I meet many students – some who are top academics and scholars, and their only recognition is an academics award ceremony (I teach at the high school level by the way). On the other hand, athletes and artists and many other talented students receive awards and recognition outside of the school environment. I think the poster idea is great, so that every student feels recognized, but that does not necessarily mean we have to do away with awards. For one thing, my school only invites the students and their families who receive awards – therefore, those that do not receive them do not have to attend and watch. Also, I think you’ll agree that grades are based on more than just intelligence, but also hard-work and perseverance. I’ve seen many intelligent kids who do not put in the effort and fail, and I’ve seen less bright students who work hard and end up doing brilliantly. The awards our school gives are not based on just academic achievement, but also on work ethic, positive attitude, cooperation, and genuine interest and passion for the subject. We also have fine arts awards as part of the ceremony, and we do not exclude any subjects from our calculation of honor roll. I’ve seen many students where honor roll is what pushes them to go the extra mile. Yes, of course it would be nice if their desire to learn is “intrinsic,” but this is just not realistic for all kids. I teach at a low-income high school, where students have to juggle jobs, family issues and their academics. Honor roll is what gives these kids their drive to work, and the high grades they achieve as a result allows them to attend post-secondary. When you work at a school where so many students have drug and violence problems, you realize that hoping they are all intrinsically motivated to learn is just not feasible! Anything that motivates them to care about school and their education is a plus for me. If honor roll or a year-end award is what causes a kid to work hard and end up in university, then I do not see a problem with it. We, as a school, also give awards for ALL participants on an athletic team in addition to MVP awards, as well as vocational and work experience awards, volunteerism awards, club awards, and awards for students who have to overcome much adversity. Students who go the extra mile deserve to be rewarded, that is how scholarships work. Also, you posted a comment about how awards are a “relative win” – is that not with any competition? Obviously it depends who you are competing against. In the Olympics, all of the athletes spend years training, yet there is only one gold medal. This makes sense, because the most talented and dedicated person should receive it. Imagine if all the participants got the same thing! Some healthy competition is good, and I don’t believe this undermines collaboration or team-work.

    Thanks for reading!

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