The Need For Recognition: School Award Ceremonies

Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.
Jackson Browne

I spent my recent, midterm break in Prague, crossing the majestic Charles Bridge several times each day. I was repeatedly struck by two things: the immense beauty of the structure and its environs and … the inescapable proliferation of selfie sticks. While the selfie as a phenomenon itself seems pretty harmless, the selfie stick strikes me as a particularly odd statement. It appears, on the surface, to be a very public statement of narcissism. Is this a desperation, I wondered, for people to find meaning through vacuous, self-expression or perhaps something more?

In a recent feature story for Forbes, David Sturt and Todd Nordstrum ask whether we should take a  step back and look more thoughtfully at what the apparent narcissism of the selfie craze actually represents: “Quite possibly, capturing an image of ourselves in a certain location, at an event, or engaged in an specific activity may be the most obvious way of saying, ‘I want to be recognized for certain things—my abilities, my humor, my hobbies, my relationships … or my accomplishments.’“ And so I found myself, as I strolled across the prodigious Charles Bridge and through the meandering, picturesque streets of this historic city, contemplating this question about the need for recognition and, in particular, the place of award ceremonies in our schools.

Like many schools, our middle school has a long-standing tradition of concluding the academic year with an awards ceremony. As each year passes, I know I am not alone in finding myself increasingly uncomfortable presiding over an activity I struggle to believe in. At its most basic level, we place hundreds of students in a gymnasium – often on one of the hottest days of the year – and ask about 80% of them to watch while we typically recognise the achievement of a select 20%. My teaching colleagues, who quite rightly believe in recognising student achievement, I can see also sit a little uncomfortably with the nature of this somewhat antediluvian practice.

In recent years we have modified this event so there are aspects to it that have made it easier to live with. Yet, I sit on that stage each June and find myself staring out at students who have done great things at various times of the year, kids who will not walk across the stage, impressionable young people who are receiving clear, subliminal messages. We are a progressive school, one that has an open admissions policy; we are an inclusive school with a mission that states, “Everyone Included, Everyone Challenged, Everyone Successful”. We work very hard to live by this ambitious mission. For instance, we dismantled our traditional grading and assessment system to focus it more on a growth mindset, on criterion-referenced, specific achievement over time, on learning how to learn, on collaboration … and now the awards ceremony seems anachronistic, simply wrong.

But why the need for change in the first place? Isn’t life about winners and losers? Isn’t it only fair to recognise superior achievement? Isn’t life and college admissions a competitive process that we need to prepare students for? If so, what does the research tell us and how does it line up with our experience as a school? Over the years I have seen students devastated by not been recognised with an award and others embarrassed to have been so at the expense of friends they have been encouraged to collaborate with all year. This blog entry is not about providing the answers to these questions. It is more a contemplation of the questions themselves.

Daniel Pink’s work on motivation in the 21st century – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – reveals that we are, essentially, intrinsically motivated beings and the carrot and stick operating system of yore is not only no longer effective, it is damaging, particularly in schools. Rewards, he contends, “can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behavior toppling like dominoes.” In an ideal world, most educators would, I believe, prefer to operate in an environment that was not so judgmental. However, our reality is that students need to get into good schools and universities and our grading scales acknowledge the reality of external exams and the college selection process. But we miss the point if we delude ourselves that learning needs to be competitive. The traditional purpose of schools – the process of selection and ranking – belongs to another time. Students are not competing with each other; in fact, in a truly collaborative environment, all learners grow and can, as our mission declares, be successful.

Alfie Kohn, who has written extensively on the subject of competition in schools (No Contest: The Case Against Competition) warns that we must recognize the destructive consequences of competition on our young people. Kohn suggests that the pursuit of “high standards” in schools centres on the need to ensure there are losers. He believes that the nature of competition in schools has been based on, “a cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards), and what produces excellence (competition).” It seems, he asserts, that schools feel they have, “a moral obligation to reward those who are deserving and, equally important, to make sure the undeserving go conspicuously unrewarded.” I would be disappointed if any student, teacher, or parent in our school supported such a perspective.

In her absorbing study, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck poses the vital question that should concern all educators and parents: “What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?” Dweck correctly contends that the 21st century workplace and learning environment requires a growth mindset, one based on effort, hard work, ongoing development, seeking challenges, taking risks, and seeing “failure” as part of the learning process. Our schools must be based on our determination to ensure that all students will grow, will reach their potential, and be focused on the process of learning for life. Grades are not an end in themselves. Awards do not define us. Timely, ongoing recognition is more important.

I happen to be a believer in the value of competition and I am not opposed to awards per se. In our Athletics Program, for instance, we have introduced highly successful “development teams”. This means that all students who tryout for a sport get to play that sport at school. I think this is a wonderful program, but I am also a strong advocate for competitive sports and for the challenge it presents. What I believe is counterproductive to a school community is the view that my success requires your failure. Yes, we need to learn to accept “failure” in life, but with a growth mindset we will see it as part of our learning, our development. Our “competition” should be to reach our personal best.

We all want to be appreciated and we should all be given opportunities to shine and be recognised for our achievements. Isn’t this what school should ultimately make possible? As we look forward to an optimal way to offer our students recognition, I believe we will inevitably move away from awards ceremonies that highlight only a select group of individuals to a celebration of the achievement of the whole school community with appropriate, documented, ongoing recognition for all of those students who deserve it in all aspects of school life: academics, the arts, athletics, fitness, service-learning, school citizenship, school leadership, etc. I don’t believe that everyone should receive an award, but I do believe that every student has strengths and abilities that should be nurtured, affirmed, encouraged and celebrated.

We are not entirely sure how we will get there yet, but I do believe we are on the correct path to supporting student learning, promoting excellence and high standards, and preparing all of our students to be the very best they can be.