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5 Reasons to Rethink Awards Ceremonies

CC image from G. Grossmeier https://flic.kr/p/7Es433

As we near the end of March, many schools have moved into the final term of the year and this often leads to discussions about awards ceremonies in schools.

I recently had the honour of travelling to Red Deer, Alberta to present on the topic of rethinking rewards and awards in schools (view slides here). This was such an honour as Red Deer is the hometown of a late friend of mine, Joe Bower, so I was able to meet his father, brother, and wife during my time there. Joe was a strong critic of the use of rewards and awards in schools and he and I had regular dialogue on the topic. My keynote was a tribute to all Joe taught me and all he stood for as an educator. A special thank you to David Martin for bringing me there; it was wonderful to finally meet him and his wife and to see that he is an even better guy in person than he is online. 

Jim and Jeff Bower – father and brother of the late Joe Bower.

When I say that we need to rethink awards in schools, many people immediately think that I believe in awards for every child. This is far from the truth; when I share that we need to rethink awards, I think we need to move away from awards altogether.  I have been privileged to work at two schools that have moved away from awards (I acknowledge that this is an easier move at elementary school than high school) to a system that works to honour all students for their strengths and growth. The lack of awards has not taken away from our academic achievement and has helped to create a more supportive and collaborative school community. Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools.

Although many of these ideas overlap, here are my 5 main reasons to rethink awards in schools:

  1. Awards shift the focus from the process (learning) to the result (award).  Whenever we offer a reward or an award for doing something, we risk shifting the focus to this extrinsic offering. There are over 50 years of research in the world of social sciences that have shown this over and over again. By focusing on the award, students use skills that give them the best chance to win the award: compliance (no risk-taking), point-gathering (and grovelling), getting noticed, and beating others. Why be creative and take risks when this can lessen your chances of getting an award? We also risk defining value of our students based on awards. If they win, they are valued… if they do not win, then what?  Also, if we feel that awards motivate students, we have to consider that awards only motivate those students who have a chance of winning. Seeing that a similar group of students win each year, do we really think that awards motivate a good number of our students? Are awards the best tool we can use to “motivate” students?
  2. Awards are not always about excellence. They are mostly about simply being better than those around you.  One argument that schools often make is that awards portray excellence. My argument is that they might highlight excellent results for a select few students in a certain area but they are more about excellence relative to those peers around you. Awards are often for the “top” student in a certain category so in order to win, you simply need to be better than your peers. If you are in a school that believes that awards are essential, why not have a standard? Why not have multiple winners if multiple people achieve that bar? Also, I often wonder what population of students deems the “top student” award acceptable – a class of 5? 50? 100? A student in a smaller school/class will have an advantage as they have to “beat” fewer classmates. It is also important to remember that even at Harvard, 99% of students are not in the top 1% of their class (HT to Todd Rose for this reminder). If awards were so crucial to excellence and success, why do we not have awards in our families for the best child? Parent awards in schools and communities? Teacher awards in schools?
  3. Awards encourage a culture of competition and inhibit a culture of collaboration. I am not opposed to competition; I play sports, I have coached sports for a number of years and I hate to lose. I believe there is a role for competition in life but we need to be careful when we add competition into learning and education. Success in a competitive culture is about defeating others at all costs.  Why would we collaborate when it could build success in those around us and lessen our chances of winning? We can also create an attitude of superiority in that we have students that, even if they do not say it, they may believe that they are better than others… and why would they think this? Because we tell them this with the awards! Why would a student collaborate with a “lesser student” if this could risk bringing their own achievement down (in their eyes)? In the end, education is not a zero-sum game (winners and losers); if we try to truly personalize education for our students, how can some be winners and others be losers? If we believe competition is important, make it a choice – encourage students who enjoy competition to enter contests so at least those who have no desire to compete are not forced into a contest. Competition for awards in schools is nothing like the world outside of school. Outside of school, we CHOOSE to enter competitions and often choose to enter competitions that we have a chance at being successful. With awards, we force kids into a competitive game and then we create the criteria and select the winners (and losers) in learning.  If you are a strong believer in competition in the classroom, perhaps use more ‘competitive collaboration’ that occurs when students work together (stealing ideas is encouraged) in healthy competition against other groups and learning/innovation wins (see more on this from George Couros here).
  4. Awards assume that ALL students learn at the same rate and have the same opportunities. In this awards game, we assume that students all start at the same point when they come to us in September and then reward the person that finishes best. If a student comes in to the school year way ahead of his/her peers and they finish only slightly ahead of their peers, is this the best learner? Has this child achieved the most growth?  There are so many factors that affect a child’s achievement (beyond his/her control) such as: family and home life, mental health, date of birth, genetics, parent education, socioeconomics, income and educational opportunities, language, and parent social and cultural capital. So, in saying this, are awards (particularly those in elementary schools) more for the students… or the parents? I also often wonder at what age is it appropriate to start offering awards – preschool? primary? intermediate? middle? high school? Why at this age?  Each child is different so it is important for us to honour each student’s educational journey throughout their time with us.
  5. Awards offer a narrow criteria of success.  By only offering awards for select criteria and for a select few students, how many students are missed? Again, I am not saying we should give awards to every student, I am trying to show reasons to rethink. How many students have strengths or show awesome growth but then are told that they are not valued at the year-end awards ceremony?  What kind of hierarchy of education do we create when success in certain areas of learning are valued more than others. As we move away from a focus on percents, how do we decide the winner? (I have been part of some intense debates as both an intermediate and high school teacher as staff fight for their student to be named the winner). If we believe ALL students have strengths and ALL students can learn, how do our awards ceremonies align with this belief?

Instead of naming a student who is THE best, our goal as a school should be to work to bring out the best in EVERY student.

Does an awards ceremony at the end of the year that honours a select few students based on narrowly defined criteria bring out the best in every student? The concerns around awards far outweigh the benefits so I encourage you to start the conversation to rethink awards in your school.

For more posts similar to this on rethinking awards ceremonies, click here. For an example of a different way of honouring students, see below. 

Thank you to David Martin for the opportunity to share! (pictured with his wife, Jenn)


At our school, although we do not have a “replacement” for awards at our school, we have chosen to honour every grade 5 (we are K-5) in the school during monthly assemblies. At some point through the year, students are selected (alphabetically) to be honoured by standing up in front of the school and having the principal share their strengths, interests, and virtues. (Students complete a survey in which they share what they believe are their strengths (character strengths and talents) as well as a few interests. Teachers also share what they believe are the students’ strengths and interests.) 

  • Example: Teachers believe Tim is 
    • an enthusiastic and engaging student who gives the impression he is always mulling something over –  has a very active mind
    • just as able to work independently as he is with a partner or in a small group
    • a “hands on learner” who is quick to begin work on assignments and check for understanding if he is unsure of himself
    • creative thinker
    • very capable student in Mathematics – he seeks to master and apply concepts and really enjoys tackling challenging problems and finding multiple solutions
    • enjoys sharing his learning during class discussion 

    Tim says that:  

    Inside of school, loves: P.E, Math, Art
    Outside of school Loves: Piano, Video games, Swimming
    Character strengths: Creativity, Curiosity
    Skills: Math, Video games
    Wants to be a Scientist Architect Engineer
    Wants to people to know he LOVES ice cream
    Advice: anybody can be anything if you try hard enough


 

 

 

 

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Hey Pal,

    I LOVE when you write about this stuff. While I’m not yet done with honors assemblies in my life — we still do one at the end of every quarter — you challenge me every time that I have the chance to hear you think this through out loud.

    Thanks for that, Pal….and I hope you are well!

    Bill

    • Great to hear from you, buddy. Not an easy one to navigate so it is important that we take the time to reflect… miss our chats. Hope you are well too.

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