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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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. awesome.

    at our school award days are like sports days now. if there is not enough awards/scholarship for everyone then we can make something up.

    so the answer becomes a celebration of finishing a set year with all of your peers.


  2. If we are to create school environments which develop and nurture the growth of all students then everyone’s talents must be recognized. At the end of my son’s grade 4 year his teacher invited all the parents to a “social” where she honoured the acomplishements of each student. She recognized three strengths and spoke for about 4 minutes on how each student achieved them. To see the pride in a child’s face as they glanced shyly over to their parents was incredibly moving. For those “challenging” students it was probably the first time that someone publically spoke about all the great things they did and I think it was life changing for them. People are so quick to recognize the negative and for these children they have probably had many years of this.
    I realize the way this teacher structured her awards ceremony took a huge amount of work but the words spoken will stay with these kids forever, so really, that is a small amount of time when you think of the lasting impact.

  3. Love it Chris!! Nice thinking outside the box. Nice to see that you and your staff are not followers and are leading the way with change. You get an “A” for effort, kidding haha.

  4. Recognizing the individual (and not just the outcome) is important. As Anna wrote above, these are lasting moments that students will remember. All kids have gifts and it takes an astute teacher to recognize and celebrate them – what better way that to do that at a year end ceremony? The “Finishing is winning” attitude replaces the focus we have had for far too long on the “winners”. – BH

  5. I think it is wonderful! From my experience it is the same kids year after year who are rewarded for either high academic achievement or athletic awards. The fact is that some kids try equally as hard and will NEVER be recognized as their grades are not high enough or they are not a natural athlete.
    An extension of rewarding kids for letter grades happens when parents reward $$$ for letter grades……$ 50.00 Per “A” $20.00 PER “B.” I have never done this in our home. The most important thing is effort and I expect effort to be put in. One of our kids is not happy with anything less that 93 %, and A’s across the board. Our other child works very hard, loves school and with huge assistance get’s B’s and C +. How can I give more money to one kid and less to another when both have a great attitude about learning and school, yet one realistically will not achieve A’s?The desire and effort to learn is what is important….we can’t say B isn’t good enough if that is the best that child can do. Reward them for kindness, volunteering…..we don’t need a big awards ceremony….a simple THANK YOU, YOU ARE A GREAT KID coming from the mouth of a teacher, principal or peer or parent can go a long way.

  6. Breaking the mold of tradition is always a giant step forward for progress. I commend you and your staff for taking this leap forward. I found myself this morning trying to fit students in to awards blocks they did not fit into. If I am stretching to fit a square peg into a round hole is that award really deserved or appreciated. Bravo Kent Elementary for taking a step forward in EDUCATION and not tradition. Interested in hearing the reaction from the parents.

  7. Kudos to Kent! This conversation started approximately 9 years ago and has been a lively one. It is extremely important that the conversation happened and that the transition took years. If people had not been allowed time to question and develop their thinking and to question the removal of such a strong tradition in a critical manner Chris would not have had such good news. The staff should feel proud of taking such a risk within themselves, with students, with parents and with the general public. Chris mentioned one portion of the school goal, “for each student to recognize and develop his/her own unique talents” the rest of that line is, “and to leave our school as a confident learner”. There are so many, including myself, who did not come out of school believing they could learn and as we have heard at many a high school/university commencement, being able to learn, unlearn and relearn is the key to success in an ever-changing world. Making changes in “systems” , particularly entrenched ones is never easy. A lot of hard work by dedicated, thoughtful, reflective individuals went into this decision and I am sure this year’s grade six class will remember their ceremony this year in a way previous students have not! Well done Kent Elementary!!

  8. I had a similar experience to Anna’s – only mine was at the end of my volunteer year in Grade 1 a few years ago. The teacher spent alot of time thinking about each child, but it paid huge dividends as I watched each child’s face light up as she spoke about what made each of them special. The moment stuck with me – and I did a similar thing at the end of my practicum, as I gave each child an “award” that celebrated what I thought was the “best thing” about the student. One of my most “challenging” students was bursting with pride at being lauded for his “art & creativity” and announced that he was going to frame his award and hang it on his bedroom wall.

  9. I appreciate the change you are encouraging and hope the students embrace each others individual strengths as well but will it carry on to the next level?
    This is a cultural shift and its still a dog-eat-dog world. Is the school system in Canada prepared to embrace this change…I don’t think so

  10. Thanks for the insightful comments!

    Anna: a great example of a teacher showing her students how each one is important to her. And when we speak from the heart, it is less work to plan.

    Brad: reconizing each student is so important – when I saw the triathlons you have done with your son (“Team Hagkull”) speaks volume of having pride in the process!

    Kelly: you bring up a great point about rewarding kids for grades – rewarding kids for rewards (grades) – quite the scary concept!

    Jason: So far, so good with comments from parents. Even some of our colleagues have brought it up with their staffs.

    Roxanne: yes, there has been a lot of time and the ball is definitely rolling in the direction of your gentle nudges!

    Marlene: sounds like a great practice to continue to do… I would consider it less of an “award” and more of a moment to honour or recognize. Keep this going in your next teaching assignment!

    S: Each large change starts with small change… we need to start it at this level and hope that it continues. There are some parts of the world that are dog-eat-dog but we are starting to realize that those carrots (awards, commisions, bonuses, etc)do less to motivate than we thought (see Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”).

  11. Chris, this is marvelous to see! I have a similar post coming soon about how my school replaces exclusionary honor ceremonies with inclusionary assemblies that recognize each and every student. I designed a couple recognition posters that are personalized for every child. Each poster includesbthat kid’s friends, interests and strengths.

    I will be sharing this post with others. Thanks for sharing. Keep up up the progressive work you are doing,


  12. Congratulations. A great move in ensuring your school takes a leap to the future and passionate learning for everyone.

  13. Thanks Joe and Josie!

    Joe, I would love to see those posters! If I emailed you, could you send me a sample? Can you imagine a school or a classroom where every child had one? Wow. Looking forward to your post!

  14. I get misty-eyed when I read this! Thank you for your (school’s) effort to really pursue the real objective of education, which in my honest opinion is to motivate our kids to learn.. neverending learning, not just up to the point where they get (good) grades and definitely not just to collect certificate of awards. Thanks for sharing & inspiring!

  15. Terrific idea. I have never seen this done on a school-wide basis.

    Competition for positions in the “top” colleges (real or perceived) will hamper implementing this concept at the secondary level, unfortunately. University student selection procedures should be re-examined. SAT/standardized test scores and high school GPAs play a significant role in college acceptance decisions, and students with the highest SAT/GPA scores are rewarded/awarded opportunities in college Honors Programs and scholarships that other students are not offered.

    Are universities creating a “glass ceiling” to student achievement throughout the education system?

  16. Thanks for your dialogue, Jeffrey and Hanni. I have often thought about the fact that colleges and universities look at things like grades and marks and have heard people say, “we need to prepare people for this system”. My response to this is we need to prepare people for right now. We need to do what is best for OUR kids right NOW. It is my hope that with the small changes like our staff has made, people will start to realize the damage we do with extrinsic awards, grades, standardized tests, etc. Other schools, including high schools have made efforts to move in this direction; I am sure we will see more and more in the near future. Many Canadian Universities have stopped using standardized tests to determine entrances into their program; there are so many examples of schools and educators moving in the right direction – one that benefits students and learning. Thank you again for continuing the dialogue!

  17. This is a beautiful thing. At my own school, we were told by our administration that we would be having an “academic pep rally” every nine weeks with ribbons (unfortunately the younger students don’t really understand what the ribbons mean–they just look at who gets the most.) The year before last, our leadership team voted to do away with the “pep rallies” to do our own celebrations in our classrooms that were more individualized to students (the “pep rallies” were very limited to 5 or 6 awards we could give.) Especially at the early childhood level, we would be able to do something more meaningful and appropriate for our kids. For one year, we didn’t do the ceremonies as requested by faculty. Then we didn’t make AYP and one of the first things the administration did was reinstate the pep rallies. I thought that was very interesting. They were very angry that we did not make AYP and so this was a “carrots and sticks” sort of move towards the students which was beyond unfortunate (and was certainly not the last change that was made this year.) One statement that was recently made on our closed-circuit tv when two students won a city-wide art contest and had their work blown up and displayed on a recycling truck was, “we hope you will excel in academics too.” They just could not praise the students solely on the basis of their excellence in art, and they obviously did not consider art to be any sort of academic subject. I say these things not to complain but to make the point that this attitude exists on a large scale in the states in our test-crazed, AYP-driven academic culture where integrity and developmentally-appropriate practice are often forgotten. You sound like such a wonderful principal with mounds of integrity and I am truly heartened reading through your blog. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you are doing on behalf of children.

  18. Hi Chris,
    I was gearing up to read this post, preparing to argue for the merit of awards ceremonies. But, after reading your thoughts, and the thoughts of your commenters, I am prepared to change my way of thinking when it comes to awards ceremonies at the elementary level. I think what you are doing for the grade sixes is fantastic, actually, and will leave them all with a ‘real’ sense of accomplishment. That being said, I still hope the kids that are academically focussed don’t end up feeling less valued as the pendulum swings a bit away from them.
    Here’s a little anecdote for you: one of my boys was having trouble with a teacher at the high school – let’s call them personality clashes – and I ended up on the phone with said teacher. After our conversation he said, ‘Don’t worry, your son is getting an A,’ and I responded, ‘I don’t care about that. All I care about is that my children try their best and be considerate of others.’ I think he was a bit surprised.

  19. Rose, wow, it seems like you are a great person stuck in a frustrating system. One thing about our district is that we feel we have the flexibility to try things and we do not have a ton of external pressure (although there is some).
    Although I do not have a ton of expereince in the arts, my wife is a dancer and she often reflects on her experience in school and how her passions were squashed by what counselors and teachers told her to do. She now runs a very successful dance studio and gets to share her passion with kids every day. Had she listened to the school, I am not sure she would be where she is today. My eyes have been opened to the power of fine arts and the hierarchies that exist in our schools. Your school should be proud of the amazing creativity and talents shown by these students – and not just lump it in with ‘academics’.
    Thank you for your examples and thoughts. There is a movement, we all need to be a part of it.

  20. Rebecca, that is a GREAT comment to say to the teacher… well done! In our current system, students who excel at academics get rewarded every day (grades, positive feedback, etc). I still want to recognize their accomplishments. What I do feel is that their accomplishments should not be worth more than someone who works hard and excels at dance, music, athletics, carving, etc. We have grown up in a system that places such emphasis on ‘academic’ learning through memorization and repetition of facts. Although these students may attain great grades, etc, how much are they truly learning? I went through school as a “crammer” and learned the stuff for the day and then forgot about it. It was not until I was a senior at university that I found out that I enjoyed learning – not for grades but because I was interested and wanted to learn more. Your comment to the teacher touches on this.
    In schools, I would love to see less focus on grades, more focus on learning, less focus on results, more focus on process and a smaller curriculum so teachers and students can expand and focus on their interests and strengths. If we were to do this, we would see how unnecessary awards actually are.

  21. How did your parent body accept this?
    How was it framed to the student & parent populations?
    What type of backlash did you experience and how was it handled?
    Did anything unexpected occur?
    Sorry for so many questions. Just thinking ahead…

  22. Shawn, great questions. In BC school districts, we have a School Planning Council that helps to make decisions in the school and includes 3 parents from the Parent Advisory Council. At our school we meet on a monthly basis and this conversation around awards has been happening for the past few years. They have been very supportive of this initiative and they have also had good conversations with other parents (at PAC meetings and in the parking lot). There are some parents that have asked good questions but I have not (surprisingly, yet) seen any backlash from parents. I emailed/sent this blog (as well as posted it on our FB page and website) to all parents in our weekly newsletter. Students and teachers have discussed this in class. To be honest, at our school it has not been that big of a deal – I am hoping that the school culture that has been shaped in the past few years has helped with this. The parents that question the decision are generally the ones who were awarded in school; but when you ask the question “do you want your child motivated by awards or learning”, you have a great conversation. I am SURE there are parents out there that disagree with this idea and there may be backlash coming soon. Similar to Assessment FOR Learning when we grade less and learn more, it just takes time for parents to understand the purpose. We are in a different era – the days of spelling lists, times table and fact memorization are hopefully in the past. I think the key for us is that we support decisions with ALL students at the centre, not just one student. I actually enjoy talking about this with parents and through this dialogue is how we move forward. Hope this answers your questions but if not, please feel free to post again or contact me through the ‘Chris Wejr’ page. Thanks for reading!

  23. What a great post, this is exactly the way all schools should be treating their students. They are all excellent! We do not have awards at our school either, and for that I am grateful to @gcouros. I often think that parents that want awards to stay in schools want the prestige of being able to say that they have a smart child!

  24. Thanks Kim! Great to have parent perspective on this. There are some parents that have questioned this decision but after listening to the reasons, seem to almost agree. People need to understand that we are not taking anything away from academics, we are just highlighting all the other strengths our students bring.

  25. I am in total agreement. One of the best things we ever did as a school was get rid of end of the year, honor roll type assemblies. Instead, we have an end of the year assembly where the 8th grade band, orchestra, jazz band, choir all perform and 8th grade student artwork and pictures of 8th graders participating in activities such as plays, etc are projected throughout the assembly. This format allows for us to celebrate our soon to be promoted 8th graders and to see them as individual parts of a whole.

  26. I appalud what your school has decided. I do agree that these good students are already intelligent enough and why should we reward them further. Shouldn’t it be those who are badly in need of our attention deserve to be appreaicted furhter?
    But in the Asian context (I am from Singapore), parents will question the school that why are their children not given the due recognition. Being an Asian society, recognition at the top has become such a statement that it is difficult to ablish this “age old” tradition.

    • Not that I disagree with the author (I’m still undecided), but I don’t think his intent is to NOT reward those who succeed further, but rather to reward all for their achievements in learning. It would be a sad state to stop rewarding those who achieve simply because they’re “already intelligent enough”. That would be like socialism for education.

      • You bring up a great point, Michael and this is something I should have clarified in the original post. We DO NOT want to take away recognition of students who excel in academics and athletics… we CONTINUE to honour those students who do well in academics… we just honour more of them in addition to those students who excel in other areas. We do not give out an award to everyone but we do speak of their various strengths and achievements.

  27. Chris great post, it is nice to see the focus on individuals rather than on excellence and standards. Is very similar to the work my colleague and I do with my students in our special education classes.

    I must however play the devil advocate and ask some questions that came to mind while reading the post. Is this really preparing them for the real world and how things work when working for large companies. We all know that bonus’s and such although cause issues and concerns are given to those that meet quota’s and work place requirements. Secondly, in relation to this my experience with student scholar ship programs, is that it is not the hardest working or most improved student that is given the opportunity, it is generally the highest achieving.

    I would also ask that you are moving towards taking out rewards, which I do agree with, but if a teacher at your school was awarded the 3M Award for teaching, which is a ceremony held at ones school, would the teacher accept the Award.

    Enough, with the questions, as I previously stated I love the idea and concept and wish you all the best in your year end ceremony, I would make one suggestion if possible, have not only teachers, but also students develop the comments that will be shared, to me this would be great as my peers would be recognizing my growth not only my teachers.

  28. Chris, this is a revolutionary step to get kids and everyone in our education system to make a paradigm shift! To some stakeholders is seems a bold and possibly unpopular decision for your school but it is a breath of fresh air for me. Each year, there are mini battles within our committee about awards as to who they should go to, why, and ultimately what they are supposed to mean to our students. Some of the arguments about that latter have made adjustments in the process but none have make an impact like how your school is now dealing with awards. I do see how such an approach would maybe be too bold at the high school level with respect to scholarships but the school awards can definitely be addressed. Thanks for the great post!

  29. To Shaun Allen. . .
    As the previous principal at Kent School I can tell you (as Chris mentioned much earlier in the post) that you must expect a change like this to take a long time, as it did. The conversations MUST take place first, research must be done, parents and students must be included so when the change comes it is a change from within the school community and not a decision made from the “top down”. All of these things mnove along in “spurts”. It seems like nothing is happening at times. I think these are the times when the most thinking/discussing is going on. Chris has done a great job though of moving from the talk stage to the action stage and this is the most challenging part of any change.

  30. At my son’s 8th-grade “step-up” ceremony, each child was talked about for a couple of minutes by a teacher. It was actually well done (the teacher who spoke about my son remembered an incident I had forgotten when she was teaching him at a different school).

    Getting rid of academic awards ceremonies only works if you get rid of all the other ways in which kids can be recognized. Are they eliminating sports in which kids can win? science fair? school plays? music performances? Unfortunately, most schools that eliminate academic awards leave the rest in place, making it very clear that the school is one in which academic achievement is something to be ashamed of.

  31. @Milena – I absolutely love this idea – especially the promotion of the arts!

    @Cheong Thanks for adding an important global perspective. This is a challenge in Canada too, although the parents of Kent (although not all) seem to be very supportive and it is the kids of these parents that are the most important for us. It is going to take a long time for society to realize there is more to school than academic achievement. Thanks for the insight!

  32. @Bernie Oh, I remember the arguments over award winners… and by choosing one we create an undeserving loser. Thanks so much for adding this perspective!

    @Gas You bring up a point that Alfie Kohn discusses a lot. My personal opinion is that competition is ok if students have the autonomy to choose whether or not to engage. We have house games and athletics at our school – these are choices for kids and there are winners and losers – but they go into the activity with this foreknowledge. Learning should not create winners and losers, especially if students do not have choice in the matter. Thank you for adding a personal example of the power of this.

  33. This is very interesting. Recognizing the strengths of all students, not just the academic awardees, is a great way to boost their confidence to work harder. I hope other schools will apply the same thing. This is a very good idea.

  34. currently, it is very difficult for us to determine what form of education that matches our children. every parents would want the best for their children. sometimes the way of the parents themselves are different. some parents may consider what the best he or she thinks is best for their children, this is true for parents who think old-school. but for parents who think the current developments, they must first ask the child what he or she wants and what is best for them, including in education. and, I agree with the concept of your school. with due regard to the learning process and development of each individual will provide maximum results for our children than to force him to be the best, though this is not necessarily the child is able and likes what he’s or she’sdoing.

  35. You know what, this method actually encourages individual uniqueness and success. For sure, a lot of students think that if they’re not good in a certain subject (Math, for example), they won’t be good enough in other learning avenues. The method may be weird (and radically new for most parents), but it gives more positive approach to individual learning and honing of skills.

    • As with assessment for learning, the goal is to get kids on a “winning streak”, not by defeating others, but by experiencing actual success. This decision has helped us to engage in many conversations which has helped us move forward in dialogues around student learning.

Leave a Reply to bernie soong Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *