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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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14 Videos for Starting Dialogue on Rethinking Rewards, Awards

It is no secret that I have some strong opinions on using awards and rewards to “motivate” our students to be better behaved and achieve more in schools.  Instead of using carrots and sticks to bribe and punish students, we need to work to create the conditions for students to motivate themselves (adapted from Deci and Ryan) and move to a more intrinsic model of motivation in schools.

If you have further interest in reading my thoughts on rewards and awards, please read my post, “My Issue With Rewards” and check out my page “Rethinking Awards Ceremonies” that includes 50 posts from many different educators.

Here are some videos (in no particular order) that I have used to initiate dialogue around a conversation that questions the use of rewards and awards in schools (if you have any other videos to share, please link them in the comments below and I will add them to the post):

 

1.  Rick Lavoie on “Motivation and Competition in Schools” – here is a mashup I created of 3 videos of Rick Lavoie as he questions the use of competition as a motivational tool in schools.  He is not opposed to competition but he says that we need to reflect on HOW we use it and work to use competition when it is a choice.

 

2.  Daniel Pink on “The Surprising Truth ABout What Motivates Us” – Pink shares research on the issues with using carrots as a tool to motivate and states that we need to focus on creating the conditions through autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Be sure to also read his book, “Drive”, in which he more closely links to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s research on “Self-Determination Theory“.

 

3.  Sheldon from Big Bang Theory on Motivation – a comical clip to show the silliness of using bribes and punishments to alter behaviour.

 

4.  Dwight Schrute vs Alfie Kohn – in this humorous video, we see how “business leader” Dwight Schrute (in TV’s “The Office”) attempts to motivate his staff using the legendary “Schrute Bucks”.  Inserted between the clips are references to thoughts from author Alfie Kohn.  If you can access any episodes of “The Office”, be sure to check out their version of business awards, “The Dundies”.

 

5. Dr. Ross Greene: Kids Do Well If They Can – in this clip, Dr. Ross Greene shares how, instead of looking how to motivate kids to be better behaved (“kids do well if they want to”), we need to look through the lens that kids WANT to do well and, therefore, we need to look for the skills they are lacking and teach them so they CAN do well.  Be sure to check out his books “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School”.

 

6. Alfie Kohn on Rewards – a short clip by Kohn that includes “the more you reward students for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward”.

 

7.  Joey’s Soap Opera Awards Loss although comical, it shows the idea that awards can move us toward a “succeed by defeating others” mentality.

 

8. Nobel Prize Winner Richard Feynman on How He Doesn’t Like Honours – a good clip from the late physicist, Feynman, that challenges the idea of traditional “honours”.

 

9. Edward Deci’s Keynote – Deci shares the research that tangible rewards can actually DECREASE intrinsic motivation.  Deci is one of the key researchers in which Kohn and Pink have based their work.

 

10.  Daniel Pink on TED:  The Puzzle of Motivation – Pink shares thoughts and research on how traditional rewards aren’t as effective and do not motivate as we would think they would.

 

11.  Barry Schwartz on Using Our Practical Wisdom – in this TED talk, Schwartz talks about rules, carrots, sticks and actually choosing to do the right thing.

 

12.  Bribe Mentality: Neglecting and Derailing Intrinsic Motivation – the first 8 minutes of this video are very good and include the words of Kohn, Pink, and Marshall Rosenberg… the last part focuses on a resource-based economy that would go beyond the scope of most conversations in schools.

 

13: Mr. Keefe’s Class Dojo – this video shows how a teacher uses the software Class Dojo to attempt to “motivate” his students.  I won’t get into this one much in this post, and although this video is designed to support Class Dojo, this is definitely a good conversation starter on the use of sticker charts and rewards-based programs in schools.

 

14.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Christmas Bonus – Clark Griswold shows us what happens when a reward is expected… but not given/received.

@chriswejr

 

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Starting the Conversation on Rethinking Awards Ceremonies

Since I wrote about our school’s decision to end our awards ceremony and change the the way we honour students, I have been asked a few times how people could start the conversation in their schools.  I realize that most schools have already hosted their year-end awards ceremonies but while it is fresh in people’s minds I wanted to provide a place for the conversation to continue.

As many are aware, when I arrived at my current school, the conversation had already been occurring for a few years; although I was part of the final decision, I was not part of the initial discussions (this was started by staff, parents, and admin prior to 2007).   Having said this, I have often thought about how I would approach initiating this dialogue in a different school now that I have seen and experienced the success of a school without an awards ceremony.  Keeping in mind that each school culture is different and that each school probably has lengthy traditions of trophies and awards in schools, this is not a decision that people can make without the support of some key parents, students and staff. Once you have a few people (your support network) questioning the idea of only honouring a select few in a created competition in which the winner is decided by staff, here are some possible leading questions (I need to be clear, though, that I am NOT advocating for expectations to be lowered nor am I supporting the idea that EVERY child gets some sort of “top _____ award”):

  • Does your year-end awards ceremonies and/or student of the month program align with your school vision, plan and/or goals?
  • What does research say about the use of awards/prizes to motivate (or demotivate) learning?
  • At which age do awards become necessary – 5? 10? 15?  Why?
  • How much of the award is based on culture, language, parents (particularly cultural capital and income) and teachers that the winner has/had and how much is based on the person’s work ethic?
  • What if, as a first step in changing awards ceremonies, we honoured students who met a certain criteria?  This would be rather than selecting one person as a winner (often when many others have worked just as hard).
  • What does “top ______ student” actually mean?  Does this mean they have done well or does it mean they have just done “better” than everyone else? IS the top student in a class of 12 the same as the top student in a class of 120?
  • If awards ceremonies are important for kids, why do we not do this in our homes?
  • Is it possible for an award winner to struggle with success later in life?  Is it possible that there are a few (or many) people out there who have achieved success that did not win an award?
  • If we agree that formative assessment,inquiry-based learning & encouraging a growth mindset are the direction we need to go in education, how can we defend a ceremony based on a fixed mindset that showcases winners based on grades?

The more I discuss and read about human motivation, the more questions I seem to have.  I wonder if we all provided ongoing feedback that personally honoured and challenged our students and we continually worked to form trusting,caring relationships with kids… would we need public recognition at all?

This post is not about questioning whether or not we should have awards (here are many other posts that ask that question); this post is about providing a platform to share ideas and engage in dialogue around the idea of starting the conversation about rethinkng the way we do awards ceremonies in schools.  If you have questions and/or thoughts or if you have initiating successful (or unsuccessful) discussions in your school, please share in the comments section below.

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Engaging Without Carrots & Sticks

CC Image from http://flic.kr/p/5PbHjR

Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm and I were recently asked by educator and author Larry Ferlazzo to respond to the question: HOW CAN WE  KEEP STUDENTS ENGAGED WITHOUT CARROTS & STICKS?  My response originally appeared at Education Week here but I wanted to cross-post on my blog as well.

Becoming a father and making the transition to teaching primary students has made it very clear to me that our kids begin their lives with an inquisitive mind and an enviable level of excitement for learning.  Primary students seem to have an energetic curiosity and require very little motivation for engagement; however, as these students progress through our system and the focus moves from the child to the curriculum and learning to grades, they often seem to lose that drive.  We, as parents and educators, often influence a shift in this drive by focusing on results and external motivators.  By dangling things such as grades, praise, prizes, awards, and threats of punishment, we unintentionally rob students of responsibility and their intrinsic drive for learning; we alter the focus to what they will get rather than what they are doing.  By the time students reach high school, their inquisitive desire to learn is often shifted to a quest for grades. For those students who do not see relevance and purpose in this quest, they often disengage as learners and then we feel the need to resort to motivating by offering carrots and threatening sticks.

I strongly believe that (to adapt from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, researchers of motivation at the University of Rochester and written about by Daniel Pink), we cannot motivate students; we can only create the conditions in which students can motivate themselves.  We cannot MAKE kids learn; we can make them behave a certain way, memorize and complete tasks in the short-term when we are supervising them but this does not mean they are gaining the skills and receiving the support needed to be learners.

Even in a system dominated by curricula, scores, and grades, we can still work to tap into that intrinsic drive by focusing on:

  1. Relationships – a trusting, caring relationship helps students to understand the learning is about them rather than test scores and curricula. In order for us to make the curriculum relevant to their learning we must build relationships with our students.
  2. Ownership – Work WITH students so they have a voice in their learning. Through a focus on Assessment For Learning, we include students in assessments and provide ongoing dialogue around descriptive feedback (rather than grades) based on agreed upon criteria and goals.  Harvard professor and author Dr. Ross Greene states that “all students can do well if they can”; we need to provide the feedback on behaviour and learning skills so kids can do well. Too, we need to include students in this conversation.
  3. Choice – Provide students with more autonomy of HOW they will learn and demonstrate their learning.
  4. Relevancy – Relate the curriculum to the interests and passions of our students. They need to see meaningful connections and purpose for real learning to occur.
  5. SuccessTom Schimmer, a BC author and leader in Assessment for Learning, says that we need to “over prepare ‘em” for that first summative assessment.  Push back those first few assessments and ensure students do well then build on this experienced success. We need to focus on strengths, support the challenges, and help students have a growth mindset so they can experience failure and success as feedback and develop the belief they can all be learners.


Our students arrive at school motivated to learn. Through accountability measures and other structures we are often forced to produce short-term results. Unfortunately, this can lead to the use of extrinsic motivators which place the focus away from the learning and on the immediate result rather than the skills and support needed for long-term engagement and success. As educators, we must continue to work to create the conditions to best support our students so that they can maintain that intrinsic drive for learning and not become someone who only reaches for that dangled carrot.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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Helping just because…

This morning I got to school and was told that one of our large flower pots had been dumped.  One thing we always try to do with any kind of vandalism is to clean it up immediately.  As kids were just arriving to school, I walked out there with a shovel and broom to replant the wonderful flowers that were planted by our Parent Advisory Council (PAC).

As I was busy chatting with parents and discussing comments about “darn teenagers” and “why would someone do this”, a handful of 6 and 7 year-olds.

Helping hands

Helping hands

decided to not worry about the reasons this happened and just decided to help.  We laughed and worked together to plant the flowers back in the pot as we discussed “putting the flowers in their home” and all the cool insects that were spotted.  It led me to wonder – how often do we get caught up on the negatives instead of working collaboratively to solve the problem and, in effect, making the challenge a learning experience?

Thanks to these amazing students with young, positive minds, this negative incident was turned into such a great moment; they jumped at the chance to help without any reward attached and without me even asking.  What a great example of the power of intrinsic motivation and the desire to “just” help because it is the right thing to do.

Yet another lesson taught to me by the amazing students of Kent Elementary! What a great way to start my week!