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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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Sports Day: Shifting From Competition to Inclusion

IMG_6764Last year at James Hill, we made the decision to move away from points and 1st-4th place finishes for our annual elementary school Sports Day. We felt that the focus on points and winning was misaligned with the goal of the day. Seeing students and parents arguing with grade 6/7 student facilitators about who finished 2nd and 3rd in the “Rubber Chicken Relay” made it fairly clear that something needed to change.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to competition (ask anybody I have coached or played with or against) and there is a role for healthy competition in youth development. I am not the guy that thinks we should give out participation trophies for everyone for just showing up at a tournament but I do think that we often put the focus on winning when the focus should be on development (that is for another post.. in the meantime, check out Changing the Game Project). I do think that our school’s “Sports Day” (which does not really involve a single “sport” and could be renamed) is a day in which the main purposes are fun, teamwork, and movement.

Last year, I did have some questions from parents asking if not focusing on competition was ill preparing our kids for the “real world”. I understand this concern and we do provide opportunities for our older students to compete in floor hockey, track, cross country, basketball and other artistic and academic competitions. For Sports Day, I strongly believe we need to align our activities with the purpose and goals of the event. I am not sure, though, if winning the “Bottle Fill Relay” is the real goal of sports day and helps to prepare our six-year-olds for when they are 18 and entering the world beyond school.  I do know that focusing on movement, fun, and teamwork is a great way to spend a day together as a school community.

When we moved away from the competitive nature of the day, we saw some significant improvements in teamwork, inclusion and fun. People were cheering each other on right through the duration of the activity and often there became a side-event that created even more fun for our students. For example, in our Bottle Fill Relay, rather than the only goal being to fill up the bottle the fastest, our grade 5s started splashing each other as they participated in the event and this resulted in more cheers, laughs, and smiles.  A teacher also recently shared this story with me:

Not having the points and placings has really helped to create more of an inclusive sports day. In the past, when a child with any type of physical or mental struggle(s) was placed on a team, there were statements whispered like, “now we are never going to win.” or “there goes our chances”. She went on to say that this year, not having the overt competitive aspect created the conditions that brought out the best in teams. Students were working together and cheering each other on more than in past years. The goal was not to finish first but, for some students, to simply finish with smiles. Those teams that had a child with physical and/or mental disabilities on their team looked to him/her as an asset rather than a liability (it bothers me to say that students looked at others as a liability in the past but for some, it was unfortunately true). Students with struggles were cheered MORE for their efforts and their accomplishments. Nobody said “oh man, we have Steven..”, they said, “let’s go, STEVEN, we can do this!”. More kids cheered. More kids participated. This was the most inclusive sports day ever.

The key lesson for me is that our purpose needs to guide our actions. Is there a role for competition in schools? I believe there is but elementary sports day should be about movement, fun, teamwork, and creating the conditions to bring out the best in ALL our kids.  Kids will still be competitive with each other in a fun way; however, when we shift our focus away from competition, we get more collaboration, more fun, and more inclusion.

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Teaching Kids to be Good Losers?

Confidence

Confidence

Ok, I admit it.  I hate losing.  I hate losing even more when I know i don’t have a chance to win.  I have played hockey since I was in preschool and I continue to play to this day and I have always tried to play at my level or slightly higher.  If I found myself in a game in which there was absolutely no chance of winning, I often disengaged and made a joke about the game (picture me and some buddies from high school playing in a 3 on 3 tourney against a bunch of ex-pro’s… it happened and it wasn’t pretty).

Because of my stance on awards, people make assumptions that I am opposed to competition.  People who have played sports with me or for me know that I truly love what can result from a positive athletic experience.  Here is the thing, though… I love competing when it is my choice and when it is at a level that is  challenging and there is a (even small) chance for success.  I do not enjoy being thrown into a competition in which I have no choice and I have very little skill compared to others (think – me in a trades competition… yikes). I would rather practice, set goals, compete against myself, and gain some confidence.  If I choose to compete following this, I will likely enjoy it. (note: I also know that as a coach trying to build a program, we purposefully faced competition that was way beyond our skill level once in a while but our goal was different.)

So this is why I REALLY struggle with all the articles and posts going around that say “we need to teach kids to lose” and “we need to have our kids in highly competitive environments so they are ready for the real world“; I also struggle with the ones that state “all competition is bad for kids“.  What do these statements even mean?  They are surface level comments that often end there and do not allow us to go deeper into the discussion around learning.  I think much of what we do falls in the middle and this dichotomy of all ‘competition vs no competition’ misses the point of what we are really trying to do: teach skills and build confidence and resiliency.

When we state, “we need to teach kids to lose”, we make a huge assumption of what “losing” means and that our kids live in a world in which they never lose.  Kids lose every day.  Some kids come to school have had losses before they enter the doorways. If they lost the battle to have a mother and father… if they lost the battle to have a breakfast… if they lost the battle to have a good friend… if they lost the battle to be a “typical” child (whatever that means)… and yet, they still come to our school with a smile on their faces – are we supposed to teach them to be better LOSERS?

What we really need to be talking about is the need to foster a growth mindset (Dweck), develop self-confidence, teach resilience, and help our kids understand what to do when they set a goal and we do not achieve it. (feel free to insert the buzzword “grit” anywhere here).

Confidence.  It’s what it is all about.  I am not talking about self-esteem, I am taking about self-confidence. Telling kids they are great or giving or setting them up for fake victories may give them some self-esteem but this will quickly disappear when faced with an authentic challenge.  We need to work to develop real confidence and resiliency. When we are confident enough and are provided with a safe environment, we take risks, we fall, we reset, and we keep moving toward our goal.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes,

“…at the beginning of ever winning streak there is a leader who creates the foundation for confidence that permits unexpected people to achieve high levels of performance” (via Tom Schimmer)

So if we move the discussion beyond the idea of teaching kids to be losers (and a few winners) and we focus more on confidence and resilience, how do we actually do this as parents and teachers?  Here are some of my thoughts (and please feel free to add yours in the comments below – would love to learn more ideas)

  • Teach about a growth mindset – that intelligence and skill levels are not fixed… that humans are malleable and can learn any skill with purposeful practice.
  • Provide a safe environment for taking risks. Don’t catch them when they fall but provide a smaller fall and guide them on how to respond when they fall.  Check out Sheila Stewart’s excellent post on this.
  • Help our kids to set personal goals that are focused on growth and do not depend on beating someone else.  We cannot control what others do… if we win because we defeat someone with less skill level, is this a success?
  • “Get them on a winning streak” (Tom Schimmer). Provide enough teaching, guidance, and practice so that kids can achieve small victories.  Many of our kids have lost in school for a number of years and therefore, have no confidence and become disengaged.  By “over preparing them” (Schimmer) and creating authentic victories based on personal goals, we can increase confidence.
  • Embrace their strengths and support the deficits. Every child can be successful at something so find out skills in which our kids have confidence (or are interested in) and key on those strengths and use this as a platform to change the trajectory of their learning.
  • Meet them where they are.  Back up to where our kids can have success (or move forward so they can be challenged).  As Kanter writes, “Expectations about the likelihood of eventual success determines the amount of effort people are willing to put in.”   If students are faced with a task in which they believe that there is a chance of success , engagement and effort will increase.
  • If you are going to use competition, provide choice and work to place kids at a level that challenges them and provides an opportunity for success.

Let’s move away from (and beyond) the talk about teaching kids to be good losers.  It is a generalized statement and we have no idea what “losing” means to each child.  We can teach sportsmanship and respect but, in my experience, I have never succeeded in becoming a “good loser”.  Let’s go deeper and talk about confidence and what happens when we do not meet our goals.  Let’s meet kids where they are, provide a safe and challenging environment in which risk taking and making mistakes is encouraged… as long as we use it to become better.

I don’t want my kids to become “successful losers” (huh?).  I want my kids to grow up and become confident learners.  I want them to know their strengths and be aware of their areas they need to work on.  I want them to take risks and fall… and when they do, have the support and self-confidence to get back up and try again.  I am sure I will continue to make mistakes as a parent and teacher but I will continue to reset and try again. With the aforementioned developed skills and support from family and teachers, I know there is a good chance our kids will achieve more success and eventually lead a worthwhile life… which is defined by them.

I would love to hear more ideas and thoughts on this… feel free to share and/or leave a comment below.

@chriswejr