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.