“Dangling awards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive.” – Alfie Kohn.
Have you considered the merits of your school’s year end award ceremony?
The realization that I needed to think about trying to change the culture of my school, with respect to awards, hit me square in the face during one of our assemblies. One morning, in the middle of the school year, the principal was making her way through the staff asking them to announce their ‘Fintastic’ winners of the week. Fintastics are tickets given to students who are caught doing good deeds around the school, and are part of our school’s PBS Positive Behaviour Support System. The lucky student’s name was called out, and that student headed to the front of the assembly to be recognized, by the entire school, for being ‘Fintastic.’ Sadly, not a single explanation was given as to why we were recognizing each student, except for the fact that at some point in the last week they were caught doing something ‘Fintastic’.
This educational epiphany forced me into thinking differently about student motivation, which in turn led me to think about awards and student achievement at my school. Research and numerous studies conducted by social psychologists show that the act of catching someone doing something positive and rewarding them for it in the shape of a token, gift, prize, or ‘Finatatsic’, can actually be detrimental to the type of behavior you are trying to recognise. Thanks to Daniel Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, @chriswejr, Alfie Kohn, and @gcouros I have been able to develop my own educational voice in this area, which led to some conversations in my school about changing how we recognize students, starting with end of the year awards. It’s this experience that I want to share today.
In my school, at the end of the year, it is the culture to award a myriad of certificates, medals, and trophies to grade 4, 5, and 6 students in areas such as Athletics, Service, Citizenship, Abundant Asset, Proficiency, Academic Excellence, A and B Honours. I have come to realize that there are more beneficial ways to recognize student achievement. Ways that show appreciation for all students instead of a selected few. Ways that promote community building and avoid focusing directly on the individual academic achievement. During our end of year awards ceremonies I have noticed the same student’s names appear beside each award, year after year.
All students contribute in some way to developing and maintaining a strong and inclusive school community, and as educators, we should be able to recognize each and every student for their individual contribution to the success of the year. In essence, award ceremonies, like the ceremonies that happen in my school and many other schools around the world, say that we only care about high achievers. In a class of 30 children when four are recognized for achieving high academic success, how do the other 26 children feel? Probably like their year was a waste of time.
There exists an extensive amount of research which shows that extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, trophies, medals, and certificates can be damaging to students’ intrinsic desire to learn for learning’s sake. It has been proven time and time again in countless studies over the last half-century that when students are rewarded for achieving certain goals, they perform less efficiently than those who are not rewarded. The rewarded, tend to think less creatively, have a ‘reach the goal at any cost’ mentality, are motivated to work individually instead of collaboratively, and are often so focused on the prize they become closed off to alternative methods of reaching the goal. (Kohn, 1999) In a time when we are trying to produce collaborative and creative workers for the work force, it seems counterproductive to continue to offer rewards in ways we currently do.
My Experience With Opening Up Discussions Around Awards and Rewards
The Conversation and compromise:
Towards the end of the school year I sat down with my principal and explained how uncomfortable I felt about only recognizing a select few students at the year end award ceremony. I went on to explain that it felt disrespectful towards the rest of my students. Each and every one of my students had made a positive contribution to the classroom community, and I felt the need to recognize them all, individually. She agreed that the current method of celebrating selective students at the end of the year probably wasn’t the best. We discussed increasing the number of awards, expectations of parents, expectations of students, and the effort required to change the school culture.
In the end I agreed to participate in the regular year end awards ceremony with some minor alterations, but then recognise my students, after the awards ceremony, in a more respectful and holistic way. I felt confident, after our discussions, that together we could start to slowly change the culture of award ceremonies.
After the award ceremony, I invited all of my student’s parents to attend one last class circle, where I would recognize all my students, individually, for their contribution to the classroom community. Before I started the circle, I explained to everyone present that this was an appreciation circle; a chance for me to reiterate how much I appreciated each student’s contribution this year. When giving feedback, I tried to give specific examples to make the feedback more meaningful. After I had finished with each student I gave them a card which repeated, in writing, exactly what I’d said orally. The feedback I received from the parents that attended was overwhelmingly positive. Even those parents whose children had, earlier in the day, been draped in medals and presented with numerous certificates, understood the value in the process. More importantly, every student received a piece of oral and written feedback thanking them specifically for their contribution.
Goals For The Upcoming School Year:
My goal for this year is to continue to have meaningful and productive conversations with admin, PAC, parents, and students around more effective ways to celebrate student achievements, particularly at the end of the year. As I did last year, I will host a final year-end circle in my classroom and invite all parents to attend.
Develop A School Culture That Recognize Every Child For Their Contribution and Their Efforts:
In the future, it is my hope that the culture of the school begins to recognize all students for their individual achievements throughout the year, and we no longer use the last official assembly of the school year to recognize a selected few.
I would welcome the opportunity to continue learning about how others recognise and celebrate student success, so please feel free to interact.