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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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. We aren’t doing awards at our school this year. It just was never brought up, partly due to a new principal in my school who, when I mentioned Gr 7 awards, said that the previous principal had said we were doing away with them. So – we will see what the outcome is week after next when we have our farewell event for our Gr 7 students.

    • Sounds great, Ed! Can you email me or comment here on how it goes? Would love to hear!

  2. We are starting this conversation in our school. Excellence awards feed extrinsic motivators for learning. We are looking to acknowledge effort over outcome as a means of feeding intrinsic motivators. But such a cultural shift is enormous and our school is struggling with it!

    • I like the link to a growth mindset here… just be careful that the decision is not pushed to awards for effort as I have spoken to a few people that have done that and the awards became “less meaningful and more difficult to determine”. Acknowledging effort through providing feedback is always a great place to continue to focus. The shift is truly enormous so continue to have these conversations!

  3. I don’t know the answer at a school I taught for 32 years only select students were recognized and it turned into a competition for parents as to whose child won the most. The kids did not seem to mind until their parents asked them why they didn’t win more or attack the teacher as they were leaving the assembly. Here where I currently teach everyone gets something even if it is a made up award and the parents don’t even come to the ceremony. Surely there is middle ground somewhere???

    • Yes… awards for everyone are not the answer in my opinion. We honour each grade 6 child as they leave our school. We just basically speak about them – their strengths and interests. Almost every single child has a family member – or 6 – there to watch. It seems to be a step in the right direction although I am sure this is not the answer to all our questions about honouring our kids.

  4. If we only award achievement, we send the wrong message.

    But what if we honored every child for their contribution to the classroom community?

    In our awards ceremony, each child gets a certificate that they have completed Grade 5. They also receive a fun certificate from the teacher. I want to honor the talents I have seen – all the talents contribute to our community of learners.

    Here are some of the awards: http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-DH

    Janet | expateducator.com

    • I am a big believer in honouring students through feedback that both challenges them and comments on areas of strength. We do a similar thing by honouring each child but we do not present them with an award for the “top _____”. Each child has strength in an area and we need to help the to discover this. Maybe if we did this throughout the year and were in constant communication with parents, we could just celebrate a great year rather than providing awards for the few or all.

      The more I learn and experience with this… the more questions I have.


  5. We need to avoid extrinsic motivation. Read my summary of Daniel Pink’s “Drive” if you haven’t already. http://bit.ly/jl7ara If you want to recognize kids, lets them present and/or publish there best work each month. Also consider the next step which would be getting rid of grades.

    • Thanks for chiming in – yes, the work of Deci and Ryan and others in Pink’s book cannot be ignored. Kohn has been referencing them for years but it has been great to see Pink bring their research to an audience beyond the education world.

  6. In our DK-6 school we took a first step last year by turning the ‘vote’ for our traditionally most significant award to the students. For the first few days of our 6th grade overnight trip we ask them each day to identify examples of behaviors and attitudes in each other that stand out as signal examples of kindness, honesty, and respect. The recipient is then charged with identifying the next example. By each evening’s dinner meetings, 5-10 students then present to the group ‘their’ recipient and what behavior they witnessed. On the last evening of the trip, we ask the students to think broadly over their years at the school, and to identify a boy and a girl who have been an example of such character to them over the years. This–unknown to the students–becomes the ‘Board of Trustees’ award at year’s end.

    This year we took a second step by deconstructing the idea of ‘graduation speeches,’ and the process of the selection of speakers — which had taken on the airs of something like a valedictory speech at a 6th grade graduation. We dropped the speeches, and had students in the final weeks of the year reflect on their years at the school through the lens of four topics or themes. Each of the students then chose one of their four reflections, and all 60 presented at the grad ceremony. We then posted all of the reflections at http://bit.ly/6thReflections for faculty & fams to review if they wish.

    In both cases, we found ways to subvert elements of ‘the award’ as extrinsic motivator, and to create opportunities instead for authentic reflection by all of the students. The process in both cases asked them to think for themselves, and to think outside themselves, in equal parts. This seems, so far, an effective strategy in a school that wrestles with a many-decades long tradition of grad ceremonies, gravitas, and the unfortunate consequences of leaving many students feel like their experiences were less important to us than others’.

    Chris Thinnes, Curtis School

    • Chris – I LOVE the 2nd idea. I struggle with the Valedictorian as well as there are so many voices that we do not hear from… I may just steal this idea. 😉

      • Steal freely! For the Good of the Order! Thanks Chris: naturally your inquiry earlier this year was key in provoking thought about how to move forward at our school.

        Here are 10 more of the ~240 reasons why it was magic… From the reflections the 6th grade grads shared at http://bit.ly/6thReflections:

        “I want to be able to make my own choices and do things I’m actually good at & enjoy”

        “I felt like we all became brothers in that special moment.”

        “I want to continue to build on my creative side.”

        “I would take the opportunity to try and experience new things.”

        “Instead of looking at all of the things I did wrong on a test, I will look at all of the things I did right.”

        “I am fascinated with building things.”

        “Going to a new school is a great opportunity to step out of my comfort zone.”

        “I feel like… I haven’t made the right decisions that I could’ve made…”

        “I want to make everyone feel like they are included.”

        “I want to become one of the people that everyone looks to if they have a problem or conflict.”

        – Chris Thinnes, Curtis School | @CurtisCFEE / @CurtisUES

  7. We are just beginning this conversation and though it is too late this year for our grade 7s it is a necessary discussion. As we have worked with the students this year to change their focus on to their learning we need to do this with parents as well and align our way of thinking with “why give awards?”.

    • That is where it all starts – with the key question. Many students and parents do not know a school world without awards so this is a difficult shift. People need to take a risk, try it, reflect… and probably never look back. 🙂

      Keep going with this conversation, Anne-Marie!

  8. Clearly said, Chris! Enjoying the contributions here already!

    Really thinking over the points from Chris T.’s last paragraph too!

    It would be great to hear ideas that parents have tried in moving or leading such a dialogue that helped it be more well-received.

    Looking forward to further sharing and thoughts here!

    • Thanks, Sheila – the original decision was such a joint effort between some parents and staff. It did take years of similar dialogue. Would love to hear from other parents too.

    • I think I stole them from others.. but just combined them here. 🙂 Thanks for continuing the conversation, buddy!

  9. At my school we started the conversation. My advisory even hosted an awards free assembly. The next assembly went back to giving awards to a select few. We will do it again at our last day of school assembly. I’m not giving up, it’s just way too ingrained here.

    • Al…. stay the path… it took 5 years to move our school. Keep doing it buddy – change is slow but this one is worth fighting for. Your efforts continue to inspire me!

  10. We started to eliminate awards at our end of year assembly about 5 years ago. It was not met with resounding praise. I had one parent write me a letter explaining that she would not be able to get her child to come to school anymore because the child was striving for the perfect attendance award! This is definitely a problem.

    It took several years to whittle down the awards, but now we only give out awards to those students who break a school gym record (long jump, etc.) They may go too someday, but not for now. It is usually 2 per year or so.

    We now send out a request to all grade levels and school groups that says, “The ____________ would like to be recognized for _________________.” Once these are collected we have our end of year assembly which has been renamed our “Recognition Assembly” and I ask each group to stand, then I read what they said they wanted recognized, and the whole auditory erupts with applause and cheers.

    It has changed the culture of the end of the year assembly and serves to show that we are a community working to succeed and not competitors working to outdo one another.

    It wasn’t easy and I am sure that some still do not like it; however, it was the right move for our school.

  11. I am very late to the conversation, but, I am thinking of adding the following to your “leading questions”-
    “Would you/your staff be comfortable with/motivated by awards given out publicly to teachers such as “top test scores” “most prepared”, ” best teacher”…? ”
    “How do you think these awards affect kids who are at risk, or marginalized academically and socially?”
    “Why should we support the ranking of students if we do not support the ranking of schools as in the “Fraser Institute ranking””?
    I am looking for inspiration/ideas to bring to my child’s high school, and appreciate this list as a starting point.
    Has there been a shift away from awards in the last few years, (since the initial post)?

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