The Need For Recognition: School Award Ceremonies

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

A couple of years ago I spent a midterm break in Prague, crossing the majestic Charles Bridge several times each day. I was repeatedly struck by 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.

Sturt and Nordstrum ask whether we should look more thoughtfully at what the apparent self-obsession with selfies 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 – something that was on my mind –  the place of award ceremonies in our schools.

Like many schools, our middle school had a long-standing tradition of concluding the academic year with an awards ceremony. As the years passed, I knew I was not alone in finding myself increasingly uncomfortable presiding over an activity I struggled to believe in. At its most basic level, we placed hundreds of students in a gymnasium – often on one of the hottest days of the year – and asked about 80% of them to watch while we typically recognised the achievement of a select 20% using highly subjective criteria. There was an unspoken sense that none of us could quite justify this antediluvian practice.

We sat on stage each June and found ourselves staring out at students who had done great things at various times of the year, kids who never got to walk across the stage, impressionable young people to whom we delivered clear, subliminal messages about competition, values, and their place in this system. But isn’t life about winners and losers? Isn’t it only right to recognise “superior” achievement? Isn’t college admissions a competitive process that we need to prepare students for?

Over the years I saw students devastated having not been recognised with an award and others embarrassed to have been so at the expense of friends they had been encouraged to collaborate with all year. I saw broken friendships, disillusioned parents, uncomfortable teachers, all because we were following a contrived, unnecessary system of selection and sorting that we oddly called a “ceremony”. Like medieval public executions, award ceremonies are more pernicious than unwitting participants and witnesses fully anticipate.

Rewards can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. 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 into thinking that 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 most educators believe, be successful.

Kohn warns that we must recognize the destructive consequences of competition on our young people. He 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, Kohn 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.” 

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?

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?” She 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.

We no longer give awards in our middle school. We simply celebrate a year of learning with everyone as one community; students run the event and tell their own stories. It feels like a healthier place as a result. Not a single parent or student asked why we don’t give awards anymore. Many simply expressed relieved gratitude. At the same time, we also ended our traditional grade 9 “graduation” to the immense joy of almost everyone concerned. Both events proved to be things that we did simply because we had always done them. There is a difference between tradition and habit. There are many such things in schools, like ringing bells, assessment obsession, banning phones, locking down the internet, ability tracking. If we truly want to give our learners recognition, these are the things we need to address.