Death of an Awards Ceremony

This is the time of the year that most schools are meeting and arguing over who is the top student in a variety of categories; high schools have selected their valedictorian (mostly based on who has the highest grades) and majority of schools are gearing up for their annual awards ceremony.

Yesterday, at our staff meeting, a decision was made that will change the way we end the year at Kent.

If you are a person who believes school is all about grades and awards, I am afraid that you will not like the decision made by our school yesterday; if you are a person who loves the idea of the “proud parent of an honour roll student” bumper sticker, you may be frustrated by our school.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of a tradition at our school – a tradition that awarded top students not for their efforts and learning but for their grades and achievements. The staff at Kent School decided to abolish the “awards” part of the year end ceremony.

Academic award winners? No more.  Athletic award winners? Nope.  Honour roll ? Nuh uh.

Part of our school goal is “for each student in our school to recognize and develop his/her unique talents and interests…”.  The key words in this are “each student”.  We do not want to just recognize those that excel in specific areas, we want to recognize EACH student for the areas in which he/she excels.

As a school, we need to move away from the traditional educational hierarchy that says those students who excel in language arts and maths are more important than those who excel in fine arts. We need to move away from recognizing only those students who have figured out the “game of school” and know how to “do” school well.

What motivates students? Grades (and honour rolls) or learning? There are many students that are unfortunately only motivated by grades.  This is not their fault, it is what has been taught to them.  The comments such as “if you want an A, you must do this…” or “if you do this, you will lose marks” have taught students that grades and achievement is more of a priority than learning.  Grades are extrinsic motivators while learning results in more intrinsic motivation.  So, do we want students to motivated by grades or learning?  Learning!

When I ask our grade 4 students what the honour roll is, they have not a clue, nor do they care. Yet, in the past we have awarded certain students for getting good grades by giving them a certificate and telling them that they made this esteemed club called the honour roll. By doing this, what are we teaching kids? Are we not teaching them that it is not so much the process of learning that is important but it is the resulting grades and report card marks?

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, talks about the difference between praising students for their effort and ability. If we praise students for “being smart” or “being athletic”, research says that we create students who are afraid to take risks and usually shy away from challenges. What kind of students do we want – those that rise to the challenge and take risks or those that believe that what they can or cannot do is ‘fixed’ and based on how ‘smart’ they are.

Alfie Kohn (referenced in the “For the Love of Learning” blog by Joe Bower) sums it up nicely when he writes this about awards:

“…researchers have found that children who are frequently rewarded — or, in another study, children who receive positive reinforcement for caring, sharing, and helping — are less likely than other children to keep doing those things.

In short, it makes no sense to dangle goodies in front of children for being virtuous. But even worse than rewards are awards — certificates, plaques, trophies, and other tokens of recognition whose numbers have been artificially limited so only a few can get them. When some children are singled out as “winners,” the central message that every child learns is this: “Other people are potential obstacles to my success.”Thus the likely result of making students beat out their peers for the distinction of being the most virtuous is not only less intrinsic commitment to virtue but also a disruption of relationships and, ironically, of the experience of community that is so vital to the development of children’s character.”

So what will our year-end ceremony look like?  Each grade 6 student will be honoured and recognized for their strengths, talents, and/or interests.  There will be no honour roll, no academic winners (and losers), no athletic award winners (and losers) and no recognition that one student’s talents are better than another.  The focus will be on EACH student and not just CERTAIN students.

In schools we always need to question and reflect on why we do things.  Why do we present awards to certain students?  What does this do to help learning in schools?  Why do we state that proficiency in math is more important than excelling in theatre?  How do we motivate our kids?  When our answers to these questions do not place student learning at the forefront, we need to change the way we do things.   At Kent School, we have by no means solved all that is concerning with education, but we have made a step forward.

For another blog on thoughts on the idea of “valedictorian”, please read Eric Sheninger’s blog “Recognizing the Valedictorian in All”

Thank you to Roxanne Watson (my previous principal & one of my mentors) for helping to fuel the passion in this area and starting the conversation with our staff.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. Bravo! Well done for having the courage to do this. Hate to think of the backlash from some parents you may have received (hope you didn’t.) Stand firm. It is so true the quieter kids get overlooked and that nepotism/favourtism is rife in school awards ceremonies. They are awarding the kids who know how to play the game and the kids of parents who know how to play the game. The one who acheive all kinds of silent victories day in and day out are never awarded (unless your parent is well known identity in the school.)

  2. Hi Chris,

    I enjoy your post and your thoughts. I’m curious how Kent Elementary approaches the end of the year celebration of student’s strengths and talents. Is there a whole school function or is it done by grade or by classrooms. I am interested to see what your school does as it may be a model that our school can move towards.

    • Hey Daryl – we do a few things to publicly honour our students. Each month we have a “Celebrating Our Strengths” assembly and each student is honoured at one point during the year. Teachers often choose birthdays to select which students will be honoured that month. During these assemblies, we encourage teachers to choose 3 key areas of strength or interest and share a story or 2 about the child. Parents are invited in and it is well received.

      At the end of the year, we do a Grade 6 Honouring Assembly in which we take a similar approach as above but only for grade 6’s. Typically every child has someone in attendance to support their family member (our attendance by parents has dramatically increased since we moved to this model). We also keep in mind that this process is not meant to minimize academics and athletics but more to highlight strengths in other areas. No awards/trophies are given and key areas are highlighted.

      Hope this helps – let me know if you have any further questions.

  3. Thank you for a very thoughtful post. Now that it’s been a few years, I’m curious. Have you continued using this same approach? Have you modified it in the meantime, and if so how?

    • Hey Theresa – while I was at that school, we continued our year end ceremony in which we honoured the grade 6s. We also added a monthly ceremony in which each and every child in the school was honoured for their strengths and interests (throughout the year). At my current school (where I have been for 3.5 years), we also moved away from student of the month (they had already moved away from year end awards) in which one grade 5 was honoured each month (we are K-5) to a place that we honour each grade 5 throughout the year for their strengths and interests. We have had so much positive feedback and I believe it really sets a positive tone for culture at our school (and since I have been there, I have not had a single request for awards).

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