Friday, April 22, 2011

...But awards feel so good

My school still has such things as honor roll and improvement awards. Although it is something I have to do, I give them out begrudgingly in vociferous dissent, as much of the junior high team knows. One of the most telling indictments of awards ceremonies are the students themselves. When it is time to go to the ceremony (as low key as it is), it is not uncommon to hear groans from my students. They seem to acknowledge that ceremonies create "winners" and "losers".  In my honest (and humble) opinion this is not the point of learning and education. It isn't to beat other people or to win a game. It is to work together in an intrinsic manner to better the whole leading to authentic, spontaneous, and life-long learning.

They seem to know that no matter how hard they work or how much they learn, they are presupposed to remain "awardless". Thus, to a grand majority of the class, awards are not based on effort or actual learning, but rather on innate "smartness".  This is totally the opposite of why most people argue for awards. Along this thinking, awards do not cause students to work harder and do not motivate because they think "awards" are based on something they cannot control-- innate intelligence.  Most students don't complain or groan because they don't get "awards", they moan and complain because they see that they have been made "losers" when they know that is not that case.

Now don't get me wrong, it is not that I dislike award winners or I think they "win" just because they are "smarter" than everybody else. They should be proud of themselves and I should be proud of them. This should be the case regardless of the award. They should not be excited because they won, but for learning and for learning well. This is something all students should be proud of and I don't think an award is needed to show this. I am not sure awards reinforce this love of learning. They reinforce forced competition and irrelevant comparison. They show students that grades and the award is all that matters.

But what happens when one of those students who usually doesn't get an award gets one. As teachers we naturally feel happy and think "wow I did that". While you may have helped that student motivate herself, the end is that that kid motivated HERSELF (even if this it not what the "award" measures). All the award does is take that intrinsic motivation and gain and make it something extrinsic. In order for the student to have extended, long term gains it must always come from the intrinsic internal motivation.

My big concern is that the student now thinks that their measure of success is the award not the intrinsic gains of learning. So as happy as I am for that student, I still think the award hurts. It takes something that needs to be intrinsic and makes it extrinsic. It shows them that success is considered authentic only by a controlling adult, not the person themself. Furthermore, "awards" deflate the effort and learning of students who do not get them. Why should I keep trying if I didn't get on? I will never be as "smart" as so and so. As educators who have to deal with awards and award ceremonies, make sure we stress to kids that awards in themselves are not the end. Learning and the betterment of the individual is something only the individual can define. You need to only be proud of yourself. So in the end I am concerned that as good as awards feel they only "do bad" in the long run.


  1. Great post; I think I agree with you. However, if I extend your argument, shouldn't we do away with the whole grading system as well? Isn't an "A" just another award that we bestow on the "smart" students? Aren't grades the most ubiquitous form of "forced competition and irrelevant comparison"?

  2. I have blogged a couple of times on your point---check them out

  3. We often talk about awards being detrimental to those who don't get them, but there is no real proof that for the kids that do get them, it is beneficial either. When we take situations like learning, or even team sports, the focus seems to become on either the award or on the individual. Do you think Charles Barkley would give back his MVP award for a team championship?

    Anyone who says that rewards and awards are necessary need to read Drive by Daniel Pink. Definitely backed up by research but the common sense analogies that are used make a lot of sense as well.

    Thanks for your post!

  4. As I was reading your post an idea come to me. Why not have each student create an award for themselves? Let each student reflect on who (s)he has been as a learner during the year and design an award that is suitable. Have each student write a short blurb about why the award is being given, collect all the awards and blurbs, and use them at the awards ceremony. Now that is an award ceremony I would like to attend!

  5. Thank you George. I love the sports analogy. How many athletes that never won a 'ship would give up every individual accolade to be part of a championship team? Probably almost all of them.

    I have to get to reading Drive, it is only a few away on my reading list.

  6. PNaugle,

    You are definitely on to something. I think I will be borrowing your idea for the end of the year.

  7. Great post we have 2 teen daughters 1 that is a straight A student and has skipped a grade and excels at school but sees no point to the school awards. Our other daughter we adopted she is a good student gets As and Bs but her grades are actually inflated as teachers have not recognized that while she is able to memorize things so well she does not fully understand them. She has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome which teachers do not seem to understand. They tend to see she has had a hard life and she is a people pleaser so she is an ideal student in class but they never ask her if she truly understands. When we bring to their attention they think we are bad parents because we say her marks are too high. For her a school award is an obsession, she does not look at what it takes to get there, what she has learned only if she gets a prize. The awards do nothing for her other than create a crushing effect if she does not win, as she thinks she should every award out there. For he an 85% is not good but an 86% is...why because 86% is an A...we try and teach her that there is no difference between the 2 grades but she only sees the prize. Awards are for are girls are stupid the one doesn't want it and the other doesn't need another thing to obsess over.

  8. Call it what you want. If you never felt recognized/valued for what you did well, would you have that feeling that you want to continue with it. So, while the debate is out there about recognizing awarding people, we need to be careful not to just say yes to taking away recognition/awards. Valuing people for their contributions encourages them to continue and also connects them to something positive. Publishing this also makes us proud of those people and recognizes schools and organizations for the excellent people that contribute to our society. Remember an award does not always have to be a literal "thing", it can be a high five, or just sharing in the excitement with someone else's success. We all want to be connected and have people share in our successes. As Jack Johnson says "It's always more fun, to share with everyone"