Shared Decisions and Abolishing Awards

“Teacher need to be intimately involved in the conceptualization and direction of school reform…teacher knowledge needs to be an integral part of the process”  — Carol Reed

A few months ago, the staff at my school made a leadership decision that will change the way we view awards and honour rolls at our school.  This was not a top-down decision but one that came from a group of leaders among the staff – teachers, administrators, education assistants, and First Nation Support Workers.  This demonstrated the power of staff members having voice and moving together towards creating positive change.  Here is our story:

June 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.

A decision was made this year at a staff meeting that changed the way we end the year at our school.

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; 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 continue 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 by both parents and teachers.  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. We have awarded them for getting a reward of good grades.  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 work together 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, and most importantly, we have done it together.

This powerful (and controversial to some) move was most effective because it did not come solely from the administration.  The conversations were initiated some time ago by administration but the final decision was made by the staff.  Shared decisions made through distributed leadership often create change in the most effective ways and allow us to move forward together.  This decision demonstrated to me the importance of tapping into the thoughts and interests of staff members; many believed that this was the right decision but just needed the platform to ‘stand upon’ to be heard.  If this idea was forced upon staff members without their input, the effectiveness may have been lost.

For a reflection on this year’s award ceremony, please visit “A New Era of Ceremonies”.


  1. Jake said:

    Bravo! Hopefully more schools will follow suit.

    August 7, 2010
  2. R.J. Rubio said:

    I think the staff at your school has made a great (wise) decision. I have always had conflicting feelings about student awards/rewards.

    August 7, 2010
  3. Cameron said:

    Interesting post. Thanks. I struggle with this idea. Is there anything wrong with identifying excellence?

    August 8, 2010
    • Chris Wejr said:

      Great question Cameron. I think the problem is that historically, education defines excellence in such a narrow manner. Students who excel in certain areas (mainly academics) are identified much more than others. I realize that awards ceremonies generally also provide awards for the arts, athletics, academics, etc but think of the number of students that excel in areas that are not recognized. What about the student who stays after school to help younger students or the boy who spends his Saturdays helping the elderly or those students who excel in things outside of school (for example we have students who excel at First Nation drumming, dancing, carving, etc)… I am a firm believer that within each student, there is excellence. It is up to us as educators to provide the environment to bring this out. Our plan at our school is to recognize this for each student.

      August 8, 2010
      • jhj said:

        I like your ideas ..but… It is possible to continue to acknowledge every learner in different ways through “Recognition Assemblies” thoughout the year and also at Year End too. I have been involved with these types of assemblies since the 80’s. Not something new – but worth emphasizing the following: Educational trends have a tendency to swing back and forth – and sometimes to the extremes. In addition “Real Life” also limits scholarships and spots (awards and rewards) for our learners once they graduate. Shouldn’t we be letting everyone have a spot and a scholarship to continue their learning once they’ve finished grade 12?

        July 10, 2012
      • Chris Wejr said:

        Something to consider here – we do not need to think I this as an all awards vs no awards. Just because we give no awards does not mean we give each child an award as I think that creates many other problems.

        We need to honour each child for who they are – and not come up with some arbitrary criteria of who is “best”. The idea of “top student” is not based on criteria other than being better than others. The “best” may look completely different at each level and each school.

        I believe that if students are choosing to attend post-secondary, they should apply for bursaries and scholarships – this makes it a choice for students and does not pit one type of strength against another. Ideally, any student wanting to continue learning would have that opportunity and not have to make a decision based on finances (but we are a long way from this).

        It is also exciting to see universities in Canada move away from the traditional form of entrance standards and now adding more broad areas to use to select students.

        Yes, many ideas come and go and what most will tell you it is because of the lack of understanding of the WHY, as well as lack of resources, that the implementation fails.

        To finish off, I think it is our goal to work with student to help them discover them discover their strengths and also challenge them to seek new area of interest and develop areas of struggle – it is not our job to determine who is “best”.

        July 10, 2012
  4. […] a staff meeting is not about YOU, it is a STAFF meeting. The most effective change is when it comes from the staff so provide a platform for people to feel comfortable speaking.  Include staff in the development of […]

    August 10, 2010
  5. […] a staff meeting is not about YOU, it is a STAFF meeting. The most effective change is when it comes from the staff so provide a platform for people to feel comfortable speaking.  Include staff in the development of […]

    August 19, 2010
  6. Hannah Winsnes said:

    This is a very interesting debate. I am from the old school of honor roll but have a daughter in Middle School who is intelligent but not motivated to achieve the grades for Honor Roll. At the end of the year, when most of her friends received a piece of paper and she did not, she came home to talk about how she felt. She said “Mom, what are they trying to do with that piece of paper? Because the only thing I can see about it is to show all the rest of us that we are stupid.” This is when I opened my eyes to the rest of the kids and realized exactly what you are saying about grades/awards. We have created a sort of ‘academic anorexia’ for our students where good is never good enough.

    I completely agree that students need to be recognized for all things, but you should not forget that there are the kids that are still excellent at school and sports and they should be acknowledged for that as well. Sometimes the pendulum swings and we change everything but without acknowlegement to these children are we not disrespecting them as well.

    August 26, 2010

Comments are closed.