School Awards That Make Sense

12 Nov

As a winner of The Kneeshaw Prize, I know about awards

I’m somewhat late to the discussion about the value of awards and honour roll kicked off by a Calgary school’s decision to do away with them, and the subsequent public reaction. My hope is to be fashionably late 🙂

Like many educators I too have concerns about the place that awards and an “honour roll” have in a modern school system that seeks to provide equity and value the gifts of every student.

Last June I attended my son’s high school graduation ceremony, and most of the two and half hours was devoted to presenting awards to a small group of high achievers. I squirmed as each graduate received their diploma and then had their ‘future plans’ announced. I imagined how some students felt about having to sit and watch others receive awards, while their own long-awaited moment in the spotlight was punctuated with a disembodied voice announcing “future…unknown”. What an awful send off from an institution that should be inspiring people as they move into the future.

I understand and agree with the arguments against school awards. I won’t rehash them as they’ve been well articulated here:

What I am wondering, however, is how, when we emphasize that each child is unique, and that we value all their gifts, would be disallow a motivational tool that clearly works for some students?

We use awards in schools for a simple reason, they work for some kids. I’m not disputing that they are often used to create inequity, and can be unhealthy. But does that really mean we should discard them altogether? That’s not the approach we apply in other situations. We don’t prevent students from using something helpful in class just because it isn’t helpful for everyone.

My own academic career was somewhat transformed somewhat by an award. I was barely paying attention to the final assembly at St Stephen’s primary school in Burnley, Lancashire. Slouching at the back of the hall in my school uniform, I had no idea that awards were being handed out. My mental fog was pierced by the announcement of my name, and I was shocked to discover I’d been given the Kneeshaw Prize for academic excellence, the school’s most prestigious award.

The award transformed how I saw myself. I understood that others saw me as someone who could do well at school. It was an external confirmation I hadn’t got anywhere else. That’s the transformative power of awards, and in our rush to prevent harm we are throwing it away.

While I don’t endorse the way awards are commonly used in schools, I can see merit in it. My goal is to flesh out some other ways we might use awards that might allow us to keep the baby while throwing out the dirty bath water.

The Varsity Jacket: One of my most treasured awards was my high school varsity jacket (yes I still have it and it still fits). The jacket was awarded to anyone who met the previously agreed upon criteria. Teachers could set a reasonable set of criteria for their course, or class, and any student who meets the criteria gets the award. If everyone gets the award, so be it. This allows more students to be recognized for their excellence.

One For All: Every student must receive one award, but can only receive one. The awards are all announced in the same way, as each student is called to the stage as part of a year-end celebration. We can keep all the same awards and add others as needed. If no award fits the student, give them a subject award in their best subject. The point is to celebrate something about every student.

Collaboration: If we value collaboration, why not give awards to groups of students. The leadership award goes to the group of students who are leaders. The athletic award goes to the group of the best athletes. And so on. This makes much more sense to me than arbitrarily selecting one person on the basis of some abstract criteria. There’s still just one award presented, but the students have to figure out how to share it fairly. Since they’re collaborative award winners let them figure it out. I like to imagine students helping their peers to excel so they can also qualify for an award.

I acknowledge, that these suggestions all have flaws, but the point of this post is try to break out of the narrow thinking we have about awards. If we can think of them in new ways and reinvent them to emphasize what we want, we can have the benefits of awards without some of the negative consequences.

In a broad public education system nothing is ever completely good or bad, and extreme positions which apply to every student or no students rarely make sense. Awards are things that educators, at some point, invented and promoted, but if they no longer fit our schools they can be reinvented to better match the changing nature of schools and our society.


10 Responses to “School Awards That Make Sense”

  1. Fiona McQuarrie (@all_about_work) November 12, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    I really like the “one for all” and the “collaboration” award ideas. I think that even some of the outstanding students are embarrassed by the number of times they get awards while other students sit there with nothing. Another alternative might be to have only one award per student given out at the award ceremony, and students who win multiple awards could choose which one they want to be publicly recognized with.

  2. Chris Wejr November 12, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    Hey buddy – I think that your ideas are at least questioning the current status of how we “honour” students. I wonder, though, if there are other ways that you could have been provided with feedback – what does it say about the day to day feedback that you were absolutely shocked to see that others saw you as someone who could do well in school? If we provided authentic ongoing feedback to students and honour their strengths and interests (and challenge their areas of deficit)… would we need awards to “motivate”?

    As you know, we have not had awards for 4 years… yet “those kids that need the awards” still do very well – they lead, they excel in certain areas, and in our current system.. they still get straight A’s. And have we found out? The kids that “needed the awards to be motivated”… don’t anymore because they don’t even know what an award at school is! They are more self-motivated and don’t think about a prize at the end of the year to push them.

    I had an opposite experience with awards when I was in high school. I won awards. I was “the best” in some areas. I soon realized that when I went to university I was the best memorizer in my small high school… I was the best “crammer”.. but I had a false sense of confidence as that blew up in my first semester after a few D’s at midterm time. With the support of my family and former teachers, I was able to show the resilience, relearn how to study every day (rather than cram), and get through my first year of university. The thing that I realized is that I was not a strong learner at that point… I was strong at school and stronger than most in my small high school.

    The challenge for us to seek other ways to honour so that we are not focused on defeating others nor are we only motivated by a trophy up to 10 months away… but we are focused on learning, growth, and defeating our own goals (that our support system helps us with).

    Context is important and this conversation will look different in each school. For me, it is not about “the losers” and helping “self-esteem” but is more about challenging the idea of what we believe “motivates” students. I think the awards actually do more harm than good for the winners as well (research from Deci and Ryan that shows that as extrinsic motivators are added, intrinsic motivation decreases).

    I commend you for tackling this hot issue and difficult topic. Your ideas, in my opinion, move us beyond what we traditionally do… and I challenge all of us to keep moving in this direction and go even deeper to a place in which we work to create the conditions for students to motivate themselves.

    Thanks for sharing and encouraging dialogue on this topic!

    • ballacheybears November 13, 2013 at 6:28 am #

      Yes it’s possible that other feedback might have made a difference for me, but I also think that some students, either through genetics or circumstance are hard wired for that stuff. Now we might make the argument that we can change those students, and in some that might be true, but there are always going to be some students who won’t. Students who are most effectively reached through this external motivators. What about meeting those students where they are?

  3. Dean Shareski (@shareski) November 12, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    If awards are used as motivation, or a substitute for loving to learn, I have an issue. If awards are used to rank and compete in competitions that not everyone wants to compete in, I have an issue.

    That said I think awards have a place as a way to honor great work and contribution. It’s a more formal way of saying thank you or honoring people and that’s healthy in my opinion. I think we need to rethink awards in schools as grade based exclusively but seek ways to celebrate a variety of things we value and want to recognize.

    • ballacheybears November 13, 2013 at 6:19 am #

      I think we agree, sort of. That there’s a place for awards in schools if we think about how and why.

  4. George Couros (@gcouros) November 13, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    This –> “What I am wondering, however, is how, when we emphasize that each child is unique, and that we value all their gifts, would be disallow a motivational tool that clearly works for some students?”

    Do we need to do that at a level where everyone sits and watches in some grandiose fashion? Isn’t this what teachers often do? If we focused on letting kids know that they are unique and value their gifts everyday, even with the kids that “need” them (which we teach them to need), do you even think we would have to look at other ways to honour kids?

    It is hard work to show kids you value them every single day, but that is what great teachers do. I am hoping the focus goes onto showing you appreciate kids every day as opposed to a few times a year.

    • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) November 13, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

      I agree that we shouldn’t let awards ceremonies replace the kind of things that make up good pedagogy. At the same time there are kids in our schools who respond to external recognition. This may be due to genetics or simply their conditioning, but for whatever reason some students light up if there’s a chance of an award. We don’t need to be trapped by the form. Awards are just a tool that we created and like any tool we can use it in whatever way we see fit. My question is simply, if we have a tool that works in some situations why would we refuse to use it? Why not try and find a way to use awards to maximize the benefits while minimizing the harm? Just like we do with all things we use in schools.

  5. bgrasley November 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    I’ve spoken with a lot of people (teachers, mostly) who feel that their hard work in their classrooms, schools, boards, etc. goes unrecognized by the school and system leadership. And when they’re recognized at a meeting of their peers (e.g. staff meeting, PD day, school ceremony) they say things like, “That’s nice, but I would rather hear a small ‘thank you’ more often.” I’ll admit I’ve felt the same at times, wondering whether anyone even notices the hard work and sacrifice.
    And that’s how I feel about awards, now that I think about it. I’d prefer we recognize student effort (and achievement, to a lesser extent) along the way rather than once a year/career. It might be a better, more persistent motivator than the 7-months-away awards ceremony. Can we do both? Maybe. Glad we’re having the conversation 🙂

  6. SStewart November 14, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    I felt somewhat encouraged by an awards ceremony/achievement night recently. It was much less about celebrating the one student who got the highest mark in a grade or subject area, and much more about celebrating/acknowledging many and all students who had honours standing in any subject, or number of subjects. All got certificates and equal acknowledgement in the presentation. Some would have more subjects called out and listed for the “honour standing”, but no one stood out as a “winner” or “loser”. The students who were invited to attend were all recipients, so students who were not being recognized did not have to sit through it. Mind you, some would still know that they weren’t invited. There was also some “community involvement” recognition – not just academic. It may not be perfect, but it did seem more inclusive than some ceremonies I have heard about and experienced.
    It is hard to correct or change something that may be very ingrained in the past history of a school. It is also hard to make changes to what others may have become accustomed to elsewhere. Waiting for the “big” acknowledgement may create unnecessary issues and reactions and may not be the best for anyone – students, teachers or parents. But can we “change the frequency” so to speak?

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