Awards for All Means Students Still Lose – No Matter How Well Meaning They Are

I recently read Matt Ray’s post titled “Awards for All” (and I encourage you to read it as well) and although I know that his intent is pure, after all, he loves those children like no one else, I question the idea of providing an award for all.  Awards can be a sticky mess for me.  I know I don’t want them to be a part of my classroom, particularly from an academic standpoint, but I am also starting to believe that really we shouldn’t be concocting “fake” ones either   However, I got the impression that Matt created these rewards because otherwise his students may never actually receive any form of reward. So then that makes it ok, right?

This society with its emphasis on making someone the best means someone is always the loser.  This competition for adoration starts young, when students are subjected to enforced spelling bees and honor rolls in elementary school.  It is not that I am opposed to celebrating students, I just don’t understand the need to always give them something.  To hand them a diploma stating that they are indeed number 1 at whatever we decide.  While personality awards like the ones Matt discussed may seem harmless, I wonder, how does the child feel that really wanted to most improved in math and didn’t get it?  Or the child that has been working hard to be kind toward all but is not recognized for it?  We are also making losers out of them.

Awards are a slippery slope and while we as teachers think that it boosts students self-esteem, how often does it hurt it?  How often does the innocent title that we give a child in order to raise their self-esteem end up boxing them in instead?  When we choose to focus on one trait of a child’s personality, no matter how kind our intentions were, we in essence tell the child that this is the one thing I have noticed and all of these other things, you did not quite excel enough in.  Why the need for recognition?  Can we not through our own words and actions give these children enough recognition without having to do it in awards form?  Is this society so entrenched in awards and making losers out of someone that we have to make up awards just to reach all children?  If that is the case, then I guess I am not doing my part.

6 thoughts on “Awards for All Means Students Still Lose – No Matter How Well Meaning They Are

  1. I once taught at a school that in addition to giving honor roll and attendance rewards, required me to give 5 awards each quarter to students for anything I wanted. It was a cool idea that resulted in awards a lot like Matt's, and every child got one by the end of the year. (Later when class sizes increased, they changed it to 7 awards so that every child could have a turn eventually.)I wasn't thrilled about having to create these things for some of the same reasons you mentioned, Pernille. So one year I had the students decide what the awards would be for. They decided to determine which students got the award each quarter going alphabetically, and then we held class discussions (without those 5 kids in the room) to talk about what we should award them.They came up with the same type of ideas I did (and usually better), but it meant a lot more to the kids to know that their PEERS had said such nice things about them. There was something so special about the rest of the class and their teacher conspiring in a secret discussion to determine which aspect of their awesomeness we should recognize.Not sure if this addresses the underlying issues/problems or creates more of them, but thought I'd share. 🙂

  2. I see two issues here:Does giving awards encourage children to work harder, and does giving awards prepare children for the real world.As a high school teacher I would probably give different answers than a teacher of younger children.

  3. I love your ideas, Angela. In 5th, we did a Valentine's Day project where each student took home a list of classmates' names and had to come up with something special about each person. I then compiled a sheet of all these nice things for each student. They absolutely loved it. One student once said, "I never knew anyone felt that way about me!"

  4. Always a hot topic. As you know, we ended our awards ceremony in 2009. When you REALLY reflect upon awards, it is quite silly what we force our kids to sit through. Most awards ceremonies highlight the achievements of a select few (mostly the same students each year) and force others to sit and watch as they are NOT recognized for their efforts does nothing but further disengage the majority of those who are not being recognized.When we tell people that we have ended our awards and that we honour each child throughout the year, people assume we give awards to everyone. Since when do we need awards to honour? Speaking publicly about or privately to a child about their strengths is what we do…. without tickets, prizes, medals, or trophies.As soon as you offer an award, the focus goes directly to that. We get parents and students fighting for this honour chosen (and often argued about) by teachers.What are we trying to teach kids? To go for an award? …or… To see the value of working hard to complete a challenging task? To treat each other respectfully because that is the right thing to do?We do not give awards nor do we have honour roll or student of the month. Our "marks" are still great for those who previously did well… and we still have those who struggle. We have not seen a significant change in academics since the ending of all of this. BUT – we have seen a HUGE shift in culture and with culture where it is ok to take risks, we will see an increase in learning. It is far easier to give an award or many awards than it is to honour a child's strengths and challenge them to be better. So if our "top-achievers" (and students that would have won an award) do just was well AND we have improved culture since we ended awards, why would we have them?When we praise students we need to make sure that it is meaningful, relevant, and effort-based (growth mindset). Awards most often put the focus on results (fixed mindset). If everyone gets an award, they may not be as harful in the losing factor but they lose meaning… so again, why have them at all?Be a child's coach – praise them for their efforts and challenge and support them in areas of their struggle.

  5. Dear Pernille, The awards conversation is such an interesting one. Are we doing right or wrong with our chldren? I don't have the answer, although I thought Angela's ideas of the kids coming up with the awards as being more authentic. My other thought is that we adults still value awards. There are awards for writing, music, acting, blogging– you name it. We don't seem to be too eager to give them up as adults. Should the children be asked to? This should be a fun conversation!Julie

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