Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

Time to Re-think School Award Ceremonies?

CJ Westerberg, March 10, 2013 12:04 PM


Editor's Note: A Classic - it's that time of year . . .

"Virtually every type of expected tangible reward
made contingent on task performance does, in fact,
 undermine intrinsic motivation".
Deci and Ryan

Death of An Awards Ceremony
by Chris Wejr

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 a select few top students not for their efforts and learning but for their grades and achievements. Based on powerful dialogue with our Parent Advisory Council around a strength-based versus deficit-based focus, 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?
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 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 addition, all students would be recognized daily
in class and throughout the year at our monthly student assemblies.

In schools we always need to question and reflect on why we do things.  Why do we present awards to certain students?  If, according to Deci and Ryan, extrinsic motivators take away from intrinsic motivation, and not only will the non-award winners be harmed but also the winners, then why would we continue with our awards tradition? What does this do to help learning in schools?  Our families do not award top child so why do we do this in school? 
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.   We need to encourage ALL students to be successful in in an area in which they have a strength and are passionate.  At Kent School,
we have by no means solved all that is concerning with education, but we have made
 a step forward.

Chris Wejr is school principal at Kent Elementary School in British Columbia.  He has spent his career working with students as a high school physical education, math, and science teacher, an intermediate teacher, an elementary vice-principal, as well as a high school volleyball, rugby, track, and basketball coach. You can find him at The Wejr Board. 

Originally Published June 2010 

Related posts by The Daily Riff:

The Game of School.  Only winners allowed?  Is Learning a Sport?

How to Create Non-readers:  Reflections on Motivation, Learning and Sharing Power in the Classroom  by Alfie Kohn

Teachers Doing the Flip to Help Students Become Better Learners 

Youth Motivation and Mastery: Fires of the Mind

Are We Wrong about Motivation?  Daniel Pink thinks so.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling Captivates Crowd with Harvard Commencement - "In spite of a distinct lack of motivation at University . . . "

  • John Smith

    This is why we have a nation of wussies. If you want an award then work hard like the one who earned it. There is no such thing as 15th place and everybody is a winner. Real life will punch these punks in the face if they are raised like this.

  • marian4256

    Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are set of standard instructions for an activity or a group of activities. SOPs help organisations to bring consistency and quality in their repetitive and routine tasks, even if these are performed by different individuals in different timings. check it.

  • shadowguy14

    I remember feeling like crap when not getting anything and it really didn't motivate me to do any better. I say just keep the ceremonies, but remind our kids that they're just pieces of paper and you don't need those to know you did well on something. I know plenty of high school drop outs (some with GEDs, some without) and they're doing better than those with them!

  • MME

    I agree with your mindset and what your school has chosen to do. I know for myself when I was recognized at the time for something in particular it stood out to me more than at the end of the year when I had no recollection of whatever it was I was being awarded. Many of my students have mentioned to me that they don't remember why they are getting the awards or that they shove the papers away in a corner in their room and forget about them--even though we as teachers are encouraged to create them for the students to use on college applications. Your school's idea is interesting and I wonder if it would work at a high school level. Thanks for sharing.

  • Adrian Charley

    This isn't a new idea. "Old Timers" in education have been doing this for years. You mix it up. There ares some of the traditional awards based on the traditiona ideas around grades. Then there are other awards in areas like - most improved, most persistent, completed every assignment on time (things that demonstrate hard work that don't result in the A+ average). It's always interesting to hear about these "new" ideas and cutting edge reforms. Kind of like the "new style" of skinny jeans. Is anyone out there old enough to remember cigarette pants?

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