The Impact of Awards

(This was originally posted on my blog on August 24th.  Whether you agree with awards or not, this is definitely something we have to open the conversation on.  As administrators, we must continuously revisit what our schools do and accept that ‘tradition’ is not a good enough reason to continue on with practice.)

I had the fantastic opportunity to talk with a parent today on why we did not give students an award certificate at the end of the year.  Every time I have one of these opportunities to chat with a member of our school community, it really gives me a chance to reflect on the practice of our school.

As my first year in the school, we did not do a big awards ceremony or give it out individual academic awards.  If you would have asked me this question five years ago, I would have thought that any school that did not give “awards” was all about the fluff.  After some more experience, there are several reasons why I don’t believe in rewards or awards in the classroom.

The Basics

To start with, here is a quote from Alfie Kohn:

In short, good values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case. (Alfie Kohn, The Risk of Rewards)

Now I have heard the argument about how students love getting rewards in the classroom and they work towards this.  This is definitely easier in elementary grades.  It is important though as educators that although it may work in the earlier grades, our vision as teachers in the classroom should be long past the year students are with us. What do we want from our students?  To be good grade 2 or 3 students, or to become lifelong learners?  I know what I want to provide in the long term for our students.  If you take opportunities to learn about your students, find their passion, and make connections to their world, you will not need rewards or awards to motivate them.

Awards eventually lose their luster to students that get them, while often hurting the self-esteem and pride of those who don’t.

Creating an awards system in school; there is no right way.

Have you ever been in a meeting with your colleagues discussing how awards should be given out?  Should the average be 85% or 80%.  What subjects should it include?  Should it only be the “core” subjects?  There are so many things that are not right with this process.

First of all, there is no perfect grading system or mark structure (I will talk about grades in another post).  It doesn’t exist.  So if the students gets a grade of 79% on a subject that knocks them out of the “award” process, what are you going to do?  Will you bump them up to an 80% or leave them at a 79%, or even worse (to some) move them for a 75%?  We all know that educators are not perfect and your system of grading is not perfect.  There is no right answer with this because to me, it doesn’t make sense.  Students should know where there strengths are and what they need to work on, not how they fit in our magical grading system.

Secondly, if you believe that we need to find students passions, leaving subjects out like the Fine Arts  (Ken Robinson might have something to say about this) does nothing but tell everyone that those subjects are not important.  Imagine how this feels to the student who wants to become a dancer?  “Hey kid, that is nice you can dance, but since you can’t list our last 5 Prime Ministers, you don’t get an award today because your Social Studies mark got bumped to a 78%.” This does not show my belief that we need to build upon students’ passions.

School as family.

I have shown my belief that we want to create a family environment in our school. I do not have my own kids, but I do not remember my mom and dad annually or semi-annually recognizing our achievements as their children (it would be so easy to make a brother joke here but I am going to refrain).  As parents, it is important to let your kids know when you are seeing good things from your kids, WHEN you are seeing them.  I also do not remember my mom and dad sorting us by who did what better in our family.  We each had our own unique gifts as kids in my family, and we were recognized for that.  Should it not be the same in a school?  Does the term “caring and safe” match with “ranking and sorting”?  Awards definitely lend to the latter and do nothing to create that caring and safe environment.

When I discussed at parent council this year about us removing awards, one of the parents shared how she was so glad that her child would not go through what she did as a child. She talked about how every year her sister (who was the more academic) always got an award while she sat in the audience and watched others get called up.  Do you think that this may have lead to some resentment in their own family? You may not believe that schools should be “like a family”, but I can guarantee that you do not want to cause rifts in one either.

The team environment

An essential 21st century skill is being able to collaborate.  No matter what awards system you use, you are promoting individuals as opposed to the efforts of working together.  Now at this point, you still may be convinced as an educator that awards are still good for kids so I will ask you this.  As a school, how would the environment feel if we had awards for the “best” teachers on staff?  Every member of my staff makes a contribution to our school environment, just like every child does.  I try my best to ensure that I let every staff member know how I have seen their contributions throughout the year, just as I try to let our kids know how important they are to our environment.  If I continue to say our schools works together, why would their be individual awards?  It seems to separate the team.

One of the things that I took from my days of coaching basketball and following the work of Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson (love or hate him, he has the most championships of any coach), is that every person on a team has a role they play.  As a leader (coach) you need to find them their role that will contribute to the success of the team.  I want to recognize everyone in our school as a contributor to our success.

Effort vs. Academic Intelligence

Take two students.  One from a home that is well off with both parents supportive and able to help their child.  The other from a single parent family where the parent has to work considerably to make ends meet.  Although both families love their children with all of their heart, one has more advantages in their life.  The “privileged” child is not really engaged in academics, does not work hard, but is able to easily meet all the “rubric” requirements for the year.  The other child works their butt off their entire year, has little support at home, does whatever they can, but pulls off a 70% average.  Who would you give the award too?

My own award story

I loved basketball with all my heart.  I also really liked football.  I played both and did very well in the sports during high school.  In grade 12, the most coveted “award” for many was the “Male Athlete of the Year” award.  There was no criteria set out, but the general belief amongst students was it would go to the student that played the most sports.  In my grade 12 year, I played football, volleyball, basketball, badminton, and track.  I only liked two of those sports but played the others to get the award.

At the end of the year, I ended up tearing my ACL in both my knees and my doctor told me because it was because I put too much constant stress on my body.  I also did not get the award and was crushed.  Within one year, with aspirations of playing university sports in either basketball or football, I went from not being able to play anymore while also feeling crushed that I was not given the award.  Before my grade 12 year, I did not play those other sports and did not care about awards because they were not given to athletes other than grade 12.  In grade 12, I became more focused on the award than I did on my passion.  How many times has this happened in our schools and we have not known about the impact it has had on our students later on in their lives?

The alternative

So what about putting an “academic certificate” in the report card at the end of the year instead of having an awards ceremony?  If you have ever been around students in a school when they get their report card, they often compare with their friends, and although something that was meant to be private turns public really quick.  Here is something that was so effective and meant so much to me when I was a child.

One teacher that made a HUGE difference in my life was Miss Butler when I was in grade 4.  She was a fantastic and loving teacher and I really enjoyed being in her class.  She did something that year that I still remember to this day and still affects what I do as an educator.  In our report card, Miss Butler took a cut out of a smurf (one of my favourite things when I was a child – cue embarrassing moment here) and wrote to me on it how I impacted her that year, and what some of her favourite memories were of me.  She wrote how much she loved how positive I was and my sense of humour with others.

The thing was, she did this with everyone.  I did get an award that year for academics, but what I remember most is that card and how it made me feel. I remember the classroom BUZZING at the end of the year and everyone went home feeling like THEY were an amazing person that impacted that classroom.  It was not that I was the “smartest” or the “best recycler” (you know, the award for the kid that doesn’t fit into any of the “categories”), but I was a person that was special.

Schools are not about ranking and sorting. They are about learning and creativity in a safe and caring environment.  They are about empowering all students, not just the ones that are strong at the core subjects. If I continuously tell our students that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM is important to our school, I do not see how awards align with this belief.  Do you?