Is Learning A Sport?

Awards: One winner, many losers.

Awards: One winner, many losers.

“Schools are not about awarding the best and brightest, but developing the best and brightest.  Awards take away from this.  We can not let our own bias of our own school experience or beliefs get in the way of what research has told us about effective pedagogy.” — George Couros

“Recognizing every student is no more an exercise in mediocrity than believing all children should graduate from high school.” — Joe Bower

This week the topic of awards surfaced again on Twitter.  As a result, Vancouver Sun reporter Janet Steffenhagen posted part of my blog “Death of An Awards Ceremony” that described the decision parents and staff made to significantly alter the way we recognize kids.  Instead of our year-end awards ceremony, we decided to have a year-end honouring ceremony along with recognizing individuals throughout the year for their individual strengths and passions.  Awards ceremonies are zero-sum, meaning that although they create a few winners, they create many losers. Some great conversations are happening on Janet’s post so please chime in with your views here.

Through twitter and Janet’s post, a common opposing argument to ending awards is that if we get rid of awards we:

“should end all games in a tie”

“might as well get rid of championships”

“might as well eliminate sports teams too”

“are not preparing our kids for the competitive environment that is the ‘real world'”

Sport is huge in my life.  My friends, players and teammates will tell you: I am one of the most competitive players and coaches in the rink and on the court.  I have spent the majority of my adult life coaching volleyball, basketball, and track.  During this time, although the main goal was never to just win but more about the journey and process, I was involved in sports that resulted in a winner and a loser.  I am not against competition (there are still fun, healthy competitive games in schools and classrooms); I am against awards ceremonies and events that place emphasis on the result rather than on the learning.

The key difference between sport and learning is that you CHOOSE to play sports and you go in with the knowledge that there is a winner and a loser.  Students should not go to school to win; students should go to school to learn.  Students should not go to school to compete for some award at the end of the year; students should go to school to collaborate and learn from teachers and peers.  We rob our children of intrinsic motivation by continually offering extrinsic motivators.

Also, for those who say, “if we get rid of awards, we might as well get rid of test scores and grades and entrance exams”; I say: ABSOLUTELY, these also do not promote learning.  I will, however, leave this conversation for another post.

To many people, unfortunately, learning does seem to be a sport.  For those people who believe this, here are some questions to consider:

  • When/why did learning in school become this zero-sum activity that creates winners and losers?
  • Are certain areas of school favoured over others?
  • How do you award the top learner?  How is one learner better than another?
  • How much do politics play into awards in schools?
  • When did learning in school become a place where “some students need that competition to excel”?
  • Is it more about the parents wanting their kids to have awards or is it about the kids needing awards?
  • Who has taught these kids that awards are important?
  • What stays with you for life – the intrinsic motivation of knowing that one can learn or the extrinsic motivation of trophies, certificates and prizes?
  • Do we give out awards for top academic child in the family?  If an argument is that we “need to prepare students for the competitive real world”, why do most not do this within their own families?  (I am still awaiting for me to get to this “competitive real-world” that people keep telling me about – please see my post “School IS the real world for our students”)

Obviously, I am being a little cynical with these questions but hopefully it makes people reflect on the flaws in having learning viewed as a sport with winners and losers determined at awards ceremonies.

If all students can excel in something and all students can learn, how can there be losers?  The answer: hand out awards for learning and make learning a sport.

We need to work to see the value and strength in EVERY child, EVERY day.  If we resort to recognizing only a select few at the end of the year, we are failing the majority of our students.  Let’s tap into our students’ interests and work to honour our students for the strengths and passions within each one of them.

Learning is NOT a sport, it is a journey; an enjoyable journey that never ends.

UPDATE: PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO (added from Sue Downey’s comment.. perfect!)

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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. It has been fascinating reading the online comments on the Vancouver Sun article. This issue has certainly drawn a line in the sand.
    Chris, I am so proud to see you follow your convictions. You are putting the needs of kids ahead of any intellectual notion that would rather see traditions thrive than every kid get elevated and recognized. Your blog is well-written and your heart speaks volumes!

  2. I think your comment about choice is key in separating the practice of competition and awards in sports and in the classroom. Rick Lavoie makes that point in this video – http://youtu.be/RIsvQAwbTfE

    I believe that extrinsic motivators impede the development of intrinsic motivation.

  3. Just wondering if this means we should outfit teachers in striped shirts with whistles. Or would they be coaches who can just cut the weaker players. Great conversation to pursue…

  4. If educators want to create the journey to life long learning then we need to foster an environment which encourages students to achieve academic heights that are based upon their own internal gauge of what defines an outstanding effort. It is sad that we put this effort into a catagory of A,B,B+,C+…Instead we should be looking at the road it took to produce the assignment because sometimes the end result is not a reflection of how hard a student worked. A “perfect” picture/paper/science project for some students took far less effort than the assignment that got a C. This is why honouring students is so important because to truely recognise the gifts of an individual you must invest the time to get to know them. I could not imagine a better reward for everyone involved…the gift of time and connection.
    Thanks Chris for continually writing on topics which makes us all pause and evaluate our teaching practices.

  5. Well you have summed it up for me, Chris! There seems to be enough competetion in our world as it is! And all too soon for kids!

    I have always worked towards keeping the focus of competetion away — in teaching and parenting. There are many contexts where it is just not needed, I believe. I have always felt a sense of unease about the award ceremonies – both the monthy ones and the end of year ones. We can’t always assume that kids need “the recognition among their peers”. And at times that can backfire — have seen that as a parent! You hear the whispers….

    Would like to see learning kept as learning as much as possible. We often don’t realize the message that awards can send to kids – whether they are the recipient or non-recipient.

    There are a lot of realities out in the “real world”. That doesn’t automatically make it right for the learning environment or for kids. Some things can wait.

    Thank you for the conversation and attention to this! It’s been a topic that has nagged me for years! Thanks for encouraging the “deep thinking” on it…:)

  6. Chris,
    I must say that some of the hardest feelings I have seen created in my experience in schools are at award ceremonies. Names are mispronounced or inadvertently left off of lists, parents disagree with awards given, students are made fun of…etc. What are the things that are remembered by students that helped them become competent learners? For me it was the relationships with teachers not the awards they gave. What do you remember from school that made you want to keep achieving?

  7. Chris,
    Thanks for speaking out publicly about this topic. I have felt this way for many years, especially after seeing first-hand the negative effects on students who work hard and come up short of an award. As a teacher, I stressed the importance of personal best and community. My classroom celebrated successes, regardless of how little they may seem to others. As a principal, I feel that awards day is more for the parents’ photo-opportunity and bragging rights. They are not happy for all of the students but only their own. Hopefully this continutes to spark great dialogue. Great post!

  8. See Drive by Daniel H Pink. He sites research Harry Harlow & Edward Deci on the negatives effects of rewards on motivation to contribute, ex. Wikipedia vs Encarta. EXCELLENT argument for damage done by extrinsic rewards to instrinsic rewards and motivation.

  9. From the perspective of a retired teacher and a parent, I have seen so many students who were never recognized rise to the top in much more important aspects of life. They have excelled as parents, coaches, partners, volunteers, tradesmen, professionals, etc. and have done so because of their own desire to do so; they did not have to be recognized or awarded for these successes. I have seen the disappointment and envy of students sitting through those assemblies, often causing small disturbances to avoid their embarrassment for not being recognized. When looking back, and meeting some of those students later in life, many of them are doing very well and are proud of what they do and what they have in life. It would have been so empowering for them if they had been recognized earlier for their other qualities – kindness, organization, teamwork, helpfulness, etc. They might have realized these strengths earlier in their lives. I am so happy to see thoughts of doing away with those award assemblies for the select few. Celebrate and honour them all, in whatever way it can be done. Kudos for any school or organization that can find a way to do this.

  10. I wondered why our children were leaving our school system ill-equipped for the competitive real world. After reading today’s Vancouver Sun article and some of your blog, I think I am starting to realize why that is.

    Contrary to your assertion, academic and athletic achievements are EARNED by (not given to) students who go the extra mile by completing class and homework assignments and participating in extra-curricular activities such as sports. Why shouldn’t that extra effort be recognized?

    As to motivation, isn’t that something that should be instilled by parents?

    No wonder our children become 20-somethings who wonder why life isn’t handed to them on a silver platter since they “participated”!

    There always has been and always will be winners and losers in life and those lessons are best learned when you are young.

  11. Thank you to Brad and Anna for continuing to be reflective teachers, questioning current practices. Keep it up!

  12. Sue, I have added your mentioned video into the post. It is perfect. Thank you so much!

  13. Sheila,Dave, John – the main thing is that we continue to have this conversation. What we are currently doing is not working as well as we would like. Reflecting upon current practices, as parents and as teachers, is how we make progress in education (although by reading your Tweets, you obviously know this and so I thank you for continuing to do this…)

  14. Shelli, Pink’s book DRiVE has had a huge effect on me as an educator (although a book actually by an economist). I did not mention Pink as I felt that people may be getting sick of me quoting him 😉

    Thanks for adding that important research from Deci!

  15. Mom… your continued reflection beyond your years as an educator continues to inspire me…

  16. Lisa,

    Thank you for providing the voice of those that are against this idea. We cannot be an echo chamber and it is important to look at all sides of an issue.

    I think you raise an important point in the first paragraph. No other schools that I know about in BC have ended awards ceremonies and we only ended this a year ago. What we both agree on is that the current system is not as good as we would like it to be. So when you say, “I wondered why our children were leaving our school system ill-equipped for the competitive real world”, you are talking about students that have graduated from a system that INCLUDED awards ceremonies and honour rolls. So why not try to change this?

    We also agree that if we want students to succeed in life after school they need the skills to be able to do so. These skills are problem-solving, working collaboratively, critical/reflective thinking. Research has shown that when we award kids and praise them for being “smart” (rather than motivating through intrinsic motivation and praising effort), kids shy away from taking risks and often back down when faced with adversity.

    I agree with you, too, that recognition is EARNED. That is why we are not recognizing students “just because”, we are recognizing students for the accomplishments, passions, and strengths that they ALL have (not just those that excel in academics and athletics).

    Motivation should be instilled by parents but it should not be robbed by school.

    Participation is important but excelling in an area of your passion is what will cause students and, later, adults to live a life of purpose and be passionate about what they do.

    Lastly, I agree, too that there will always be winners and losers in life… so why add to this by having awards for learning? Why take away intrinsic motivation from the award winners (which research shows that it does – see Deci and Ryan) and why further alienate the award “losers” from school?

    Thanks for adding this important piece to the conversation. The main thing is that we are discussing and challenging the current system!

  17. Wow! This has been really thought-provoking for me. I nodded when reading Dave M’s comments about who is excluded, or hurt by these award ceremonies. I also am thinking about how realistic the real world analogy is. Do people work for rewards? Sure, but there are other motivations that exist in the real world – supporting family, love of what you do, etc.

    this conversation, along with the notion of “would kids come to your class if they didn’t have to?” have got my brain whirling.

  18. Chris,
    Thank you for framing the issue of awards and motivation with such eloquent and powerful words.
    I often hear the arguments about competition and awards preparing students for real life, and your statement about school being real life for kids resonated quite deeply within me, and that we’re here to support the development of a student’s intrinsic motivation, not award those that can rise to meet our imposed idea of achievement. Rick Lavoie’s notion about how EVERY student is motivated by something has had quite an impact on me as an educator and an administrator. Not only are kids motivated by something, sometimes that motivation is to NOT do something, like take risks in their learning. And why should they? Not all students are going to be the best, but they can meet their personal best, like it said in the video.
    Thank you for the thoughts, and I look forward to bringing the discussion to my staff.

  19. I felt the need to respond to Lisa’s comments. I have no problem with winners, losers, and awards when participation is by choice. In the competitive real world, adults get to choose their competitions, both work and play. In most academic endeavors, participation is mandatory for students.
    I would also be willing to consider the benefits of rewarding effort in the academic arena. However, there is not a direct correlation between effort and success. Nature and nurture also play a roll. School was very easy for me and my five siblings. I missed 52 days of school my senior year because I was bored, yet I graduated in the top 10% of a class of nearly 600. I got lots of awards, but expended little effort. Many students worked much harder, but experienced much less success. They did not receive any awards.
    Although I didn’t realize it at the time, something my mother did resulted in my aversion to extrinsic reward systems. When we asked to get paid for our grades like our cousins did, she replied, “You are not getting those grades for me, you are getting them for yourselves.” All of my accomplishments, including graduating from college and running my first half-marathon in my fifties, are a result of being intrinsically motivated and believing in myself.

  20. Chris – you’ve created quite a stir with this hey. Lots of excellent input here. I just want to tag onto that all students learn. Isn’t education meant to help all students succeed, to get from “here” to “there”. The distance they travel will vary from student to student. Effort, attitude, approach, etc. matter. Grades have (I’m sorry) an arbitrary feel to them. And they don’t matter in the real world (University is not a real world). Ultimately, what do you know, what can you do, how do you do it, how do you work with others, can you learn… continuously, can you think and communicate well, … these matter. Okay, maybe I want my medical doctor to also have straight “A”s 🙂 But it isn’t academic awards that make a great person – we are more complicated than that.

  21. Good Morning Chris – I enjoyed reading your comments and also listening to your interview yesterday morning with Bill Good. As you know, I have spent a number of years throughout my career working with special education students, their teachers and families. I have seen first hand the importance and value of identifying and celebrating the indiividual strengths of each learner. My observations have been that once those strengths are identified the level of motivation and commitment to learning increases dramatically for every student. We all have areas of strength that we can celebrate on a daily basis and I apolod you, Chris for creating such a positive learning environment for your students through this philosohpy.

  22. Your comments have certainly tapped an area of public interest.

    I would agree with you that learning is not a podium-finish competition and that all learners need to be recognized for their successes (and their honest efforts that led to failure, as you pointed out on CKNW). We could ask, though: is it an either/or proposition? Can we, with integrity, both honour all learning and also give special recognition to outstanding achievement? Is there evidence that awards *harm* the majority of learners if the awards are approached in a positive spirit? Certainly we don’t need a ruthless sports mentality in learning where the “losers” litter the field. But I can understand the concern that recognition of excellence has been subsumed by a fear that we will damage the self-esteem of everyone else. In that context, our common recognition of uncommon achievement seems appropriate. It doesn’t diminish us to give honour to colleagues where it is due. That’s not competition, it’s a form of collaboration.

    Keep up the good work, Chris!

  23. Chris,

    First, I just stumbled across your blog this evening and am thoroughly enjoying the read – Sarah Hanawald linked to this post on the NAIS 2011 Annual conference community.

    I love this topic – it’s one that my school is also wrestling with in recent years. I completely respect Lisa’s point of view, and am glad she expressed it, but I’d also ask her to consider how common it is for that one absolutely brilliant student to “sweep” the awards in subject after subject. I’ve seen that happen too many times to count, and it always reflects loud and clear on the faces of the other students…

    Will enjoy reading more here. Thanks for blogging.

  24. @Pete, the research by Deci and Ryan on intrinsic motivation has really got me thinking… they state that by “adding extrinsic motivators, we take away from intrinsic motivation”. The main thing is that many of us are questioning the way things are done… that is the key starting point and hopefully tipping point!

  25. @Erin I love what you are saying and please keep me in the loop with more information you have on this topic… as it is obv one in which I am passionate.

    @Sue Thanks again for your thoughts. I posted a blog “The Price of Grades” a month ago that discussed that topic. We need to understand that success in school is often based on for whom you are born to… and those are often the students who are rewarded at school every day. There are so many more students to recognize and honour. As you said, and I agree, competition should be a choice.

  26. @Brian What can I say other than I agree with you… and no need to apologize about grades as this is another change I would love to see and people in your district seem to be leading the way with the grade conversation.

    @Karen we know that autonomy is a required condition for intrinsic motivation. Through the support of SD78, we have been able to make changes which benefit our kids – who are the most important students to us. Thanks again for the autonomy to try things that benefit kids.

  27. @Mark You bring up a great point and Kohn would say that competition has no place in schools nor in societ. I think that there can be healthy competition but the research by Deci and Ryan state that by awarding someone, we actually take away from their intrinsic motivation. Like you do, I think we need to continue praising students for their efforts in meaningful, relevant ways. Thanks for commenting!

  28. @Jim, great point that I didn’t touch on. I know of a student that won top academic in grade 4, 5 and 6 at our school. Another reason that more kids need to be recognized for the strengths and passions.

  29. Do we want learning environments that only nurture and support competitiveness? I think that could be the caution here. I think there are huge individual differences in competitiveness, whatever the reason. Not all students are motivated by competition. Some might be competitive in many things they do, even without rewarding it.

  30. Great topic! I have gotten the “Well,why don’t we just give everyone a trophy?” comments when I have addressed this issue. The most common response is “why are we punishing the kids that work hard?” I am meeting with a group of sixth grade representatives next week on this topic. Does anyone know of a short childrens’ books that would help get the point across to students that traditionally make the honor roll?

    • That is exactly what I have been hearing too Jen. I think the important thing that I keep touching on is that we are not stating that certain areas are LESS important, we are stating that other areas are JUST AS important and need to be celebrated. The response to the second question is: by awarding students that excel in academics, we are actually punishing them too because we are robbing them of their intrinsic motivation. Also, we all know that the kids who are recognized are those that often come from middle/upper class English speaking families and too often, are the same kids year after year. If you would like more resources (I have tons), please email me at chriswejr@gmail.com
      Not sure of any kids books but I love “How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids” that talks about the power of positivity.

      Thanks for continuing the conversation!

  31. Remember, that in sports, good coaches give you feedback after the game knowing that another game is usually around the corner. You then work on the key areas during practice—-your coach keeps you focused on improving your skills. Good coaches know the reward is in the process, not in the end result. Awards usually don’t offer the same opportunity for descriptive feedback on how to improve your performance over time- usually the criteria is subjective and I’ve never seen a teacher sit down with a kid and talk about performance after an awards ceremony…it’s simply game over.

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