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10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student (a slightly cynical post)

It is no secret that I have concerns with the focus on awards in schools. For the past 9 years, I have been privileged to work as a principal in two different school communities who have both moved away from traditional awards ceremonies. As someone once told me, “we need to be hard on ideas and soft on people” – this is a satirical criticism of the IDEA of traditional awards ceremonies in schools and is meant to highlight issues with (and challenge people to rethink) the use of these in schools, and is NOT meant to be a criticism of parents nor educators. 

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

CC Image from Abhijit Mhetre https://flic.kr/p/9aJMYw

Defeating others is crucial to the success of our children, and it is our role, as educators and parents, to prepare our students for the big bad real world that is out there that will eat you up and spit you out. I was having trouble sleeping last night so I came up with a list that will help me raise my kids as well as my students to become better than others and win more traditional awards at school.

10 Secrets to Raising an Award-Winning Student:

  1. Have parents with a post-secondary education. There is much research to support a correlation between parent education and student achievement. This is not really a secret so, if you want a student to win academic awards, it is important that the child’s parents have something beyond a high school education. (I realize there is exceptions to this but the correlation is pretty clear)
  2. Have parents with higher income. There is also a correlation between socioeconomic status and traditional achievement in schools so, again, it makes a difference if the parents have more financial and cultural capital to access more support and educational opportunities.
  3. Be born in the first 3 months of the year. Schools organize students by date of birth (or as Sir Ken says, “date of manufacture”) so being born in at the start of the year can give a student a significant advantage. In Canada, a child born in January could have almost 12 months of advantage through growth and development as compared to a peer born in late December (some states use September as the cut-off so it would be a similar comparison to a child born in September and a child born in August).  Although the date of birth has less of an impact as the student get older, it makes a difference in schools for early learning opportunities and resulting student confidence and self-efficacy.
  4. Place the majority of the focus on getting good grades. Many awards are decided based on who has the top marks in the grade level so getting a good percentage and/or GPA is essential to cleaning up the awards. Therefore, it is important to pay less attention to soft skills and the process of learning and more attention to getting good grades. The 0.1% in the grade book can make the difference between an award-winner and an award-loser so it is important to ask for bonus marks and do everything to collect the most points in school.
  5. Avoid collaboration. Remember that the people around your child/student stand in the way of him/her winning the award. Awards are only won by defeating those around you so, by collaborating, you could be hurting your chances as you may be making those around you that much better.
  6. Avoid courses that challenge the student. As was stated in #4, the goal is to get top marks so by enrolling in courses that are not an area of strength and that are challenging for the student could result in lower marks. Also, I have heard that students can enrol in courses with “easy-markers” (I am not sure what this means though) so this could help their chances at winning as well.
  7. Self-promotion is key. Decisions on awards are sometimes made as a team so it is important that academic accomplishments are shared so everyone knows the top grades and other achievements that have been attained. Also, awards are heavily based on short-term extrinsic motivation so self-promotion, along with the focus on grades, will help keep the emphasis on the extrinsic (rather than intrinsic).
  8. Attend a small school.  Winning awards is not about achieving some standard or level, it is simply about being better than those around you. If you attend a smaller school, you have a much better chance of winning as there are fewer students around you.
  9. Give awards out in the home and community.  Because awards mean that we stand for excellence, it is important to also give awards in your home to your top child. This will not only highlight excellence but also help teach the other child that loses the award how to cope in the big, bad real world. Outside the home, work with the community to give top parent awards and top children awards so families and community members can also compete with each other in the promotion of excellence.
  10. Comply, comply, comply. A great way to getting top marks is to colour inside the lines and think inside the box. Do not question the way things are done or try to be creative and do things in new ways as this may mean that you will not do exactly what the school is asking and, therefore, risk getting lower grades. There is a game within in school and those who learn the rules of “doing” school well and comply, collect the most points, and beat those around them… win!

As you can see, there are so many variables that are beyond the control of our students that impact who wins the traditional awards in schools.  Parent education, parent financial and cultural capital, student month of birth, school size, etc all provide some students with an advantage and leaves others with a disadvantage. We, as educators, often express concerns about school rankings because of these aforementioned factors yet we rarely question the ranking (well, ranking by placing at the top) of students in schools that are affected by these same factors.  Most of the time, parents and students are doing the best they can but face hurdles outside their control which can affect achievement at school. As a community, we need to help ALL students go over/around these hurdles so we can create the conditions to bring out the best in each of them. Having said this, we need to ask ourselves, as a school community, if traditional awards ceremonies actually promote excellence and bring out the best or if they simply promote achievement using narrow criteria defined by adults within the building. Are awards the best we can do to highlight student learning and growth in our schools?

I am not saying that the answer is to “give awards to everyone” (which I oppose) as this creates a whole different issue; I am saying, though, that we need to rethink how we honour our students and we need to create new ways of promoting excellence and celebrating learning that goes beyond our traditional awards ceremonies in schools.

Please do not tell me thoughts like these are creating this “enabled” generation of millennial adults (whatever that means.. apparently I just missed the cut-off to being a Millennial). The vast majority of schools still use traditional awards and millennial adults went through schools that used awards… so if a lack of responsibility and independence is a concern (which is a valid concern), let’s talk about this and discuss strategies we can use every day to improve this for our children and community.

The late Joe Bower and I had many conversations on this topic and I feel like these thoughts are a tribute to him. Check out one of his posts on this topic here.