Every Student Gets an Award…Or Not?

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at our year-end awards.  It seems that it’s always the same students who reap most of the bounty, and many hard working students are never recognized.  And yet, I’m not an advocate of making up frivolous awards just to include all students.  Research, too, indicates that giving students frivolous awards or trophies for just being on a team or being part of a class has a negative impact on self worth.

And yet, don’t we tell students that they all have their own set of strengths and talents on which to build their careers?  That the top performers are not the only ones who succeed? And as we all know, not all top students succeed.  So, what about the student who shows up day after day, does his or her work on time all the time, is respectful and cooperative, but only manages to maintain a strong “C” average?  Should this student be left out of the awards line up?

Our school tried something new last June to see if we couldn’t come up with a solution to this issue.  We have been working towards becoming a Leader In Me school for the last two years.  The Leader in Me program focuses on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers by Sean Covey.  The belief behind this program is that by having the seven attitudes or habits, every student can be successful regardless of academic ability.  So, in addition to our usual awards for honors, merit, arts, leadership, athletics, and various options, we added the 7 Habits as well.

We had all of our junior high students write down the top three habits that they thought they demonstrated exceptionally well throughout the year.  They also had to back up their choices with evidence of how they demonstrated the habits.  The Awards Committee went over the responses of those students who were not receiving any other awards and chose their strongest habit.  In the end, almost every student was recognized.

I had the privilege of emceeing the awards ceremony, and it was awesome to see almost all students recognized with an authentic award.  The best part was seeing the pride on the students’ faces.  They knew they were being recognized for something as valuable as all the other awards being handed out.

Not only did we hand out awards for academics, arts, and athletics, but we honoured attitudes as well.  And, as we tell our students all the time, having academic or art or athletic abilities means very little without the right attitude.


About Sherry Langland

Mother, teacher, consultant, learner, and maybe a budding photographer...
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2 Responses to Every Student Gets an Award…Or Not?

  1. I have grave doubts about the value of awards programs – even when all students are included. There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that awards – and rewards – actually produce a demotivating effect over time. Daniel Pink’s book Drive really – er – drove this home for me.

    Instead, I think we should focus our efforts on regular recognition and feedback on performance. In her book, Fierce Leadership, Susan Scott proposes that we have to move away from 360 degree anonymous feedback to what she calls 365 feedback. Feedback that is transparent, timely, and honest.

    The strengths of the approach used in your case – IMHO – are the personal reflection and self-assessment aspects. It’s so valuable for students to set their own goals, monitor their own progress and provide evidence of growth over time.

    What is the intended outcome of the awards ceremony? What are the unintended outcomes that we get when we run them?

    What would happen if the entire awards program was completely reinvented? How would the kids design the awards program? What would happen if there were no awards given?

    Your post certainly got me thinking, Sherry! Thanks!


    • Thank you, Angie, for your comments. As always, your questions challenge me to dig deeper into my own thinking. And so, I will try and tackle your questions. Awards and rewards can produce a demotivating effect as Daniel Pink’s book Drive points out, especially when used as a ‘carrot and sticks’ approach to motivation. However, he also points out that recognition is a form of feedback. And it can be a motivating one as long as recognition is not the goal itself.

      Most teachers worth their salt regularly provide feedback and recognition throughout the year to their students about their work. Frequent formative assessment (365 degree feedback) is one of the best vehicles to deliver this timely, transparent, and constructive feedback that students need in order to move to the next level of learning. If all teachers did was reward students at the end of the year(360 degree feedback), then there would be absolutely no value in a year-end awards ceremony.

      We do spend some time goal setting with students, and then monitoring, reflecting, and assessing their progress. Could we do a better job? Definitely. Curricular objectives, standardized testing, and time pressures can often interfere. What we do do, though, is offer students as much autonomy as possible in choosing assignments and methods of delivery. Frequent formative assessments along with relevant, engaging tasks help students gain a sense of mastery over the material. And we help students see the purpose of their work and how it connects to the real world. Most of the time, anyway.

      As for the intended outcome of the awards ceremony? Good question. A celebration of success? I’m not sure. What I am sure of, though, is that we need to be recognizing effort and strategy over intelligence which is what the 7 attitudes do. And I will continue to advocate for that kind of recognition.

      An unintended outcome of recognizing intelligence alone according to Nancy Dweck’s research, can be to produce a student who will resist new challenges for fear of looking dumb. Perhaps that is what our honours and merit awards do. Maybe that is the part of the awards ceremony we need to re-think. Because, after all, intelligence doesn’t amount to much without the right attitudes.

      As for students designing the awards afternoon, I may just have to suggest that to the committee. I think it’s a great idea.

      That’s about it, and I apologize for the long-winded response! I think it might be longer than my post. I just hope it makes sense.


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