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Awards, Grades and Competition

by Alfonso Gonzalez on January 15th, 2011

I’ve been reading some great blogs and comments challenging some of schools most treasured traditions. Within my classroom and with the support of my principal I was able to abolish grades in an effort to support student learning. I try to foster cooperation in my classes because we are, after all, learning the same things. Why not help each other? I mean, I’m only one person so if we all help each other then everyone will learn more and go farther. And besides, if we cooperate, work together and share the learning then everyone has a better opportunity to learn! It’s not like anyone is trying to patent some new Science technique, the standards are for ALL my students. Makes sense to me. But then you come to awards ceremonies and that’s one that makes me uncomfortable. We’re so entrenched to offer quick praise and our kids are so used to it that if someone doesn’t say, “good job,” or “here’s a certificate for that,” then our kids feel unappreciated. Come on. We can show our kids that we appreciate them better than saying good job all the time or giving some kids an award some of the time. I don’t give my students rewards. I give them feedback and I show appreciation of hard work and the things they produce and create by telling giving them information no quick and useless praise. But every month I still have to attend and sit through our awards assembly. I’ve never liked them. I see the discomfort in all the kids. Some of the kids who win awards, despite feeling proud, still have to deal with being “uncool” because those that didn’t get an award save face by being “cool.” Sure beats crying or feeling bad, I guess!

I want to share some blogs that I’ve been reading about schools where the discussion to change the way they honor kids is happening or how they have actually changed the way they do awards. I have to smile because all the blogs I’m going to share are from Canadian teachers and principals. I’m sure there are schools here in America doing this but I guess I don’t read those blogs. If you know of any please share in the comment section of this post.

Here’s a great blog post by Nunavut_Teacher (that’s his Twitter handle) where he also links to some of the other posts I’m linking here (and more!): Another Intrinsic Killer: Awards Ceremonies

This blog by British Columbia principal, Mr. Wejr, sparked a Vancouver Sun article and an interview plus many reads and comments to his blogs about awards ceremonies: Death of an Awards CeremonyIs Learning A Sport? and Questioning Awards and Grades.

Here’s a blog by an Alberta principal, Mr. Couros, that also hits home: Honouring All Students.

Those blogs have really got me thinking about my discomfort at awards assemblies and has me wondering how we can make those better. I’m sure we can come up with something better at my school but how do we start the conversation to change? At least it’s good to know there are schools out there doing different things and that we can look at them for ideas.

In Mr. Wejr’s “Is Learning A Sport?” blog post he shares a video from one of the comments he got. Great information in that video. I’m putting all three parts of that video on competition here for those who are interested. It’s well worth the watch and all three parts together last about 20 minutes.

I think these are things we need to know. What do you think?

Finally, I’d like to share another video that inspired me from another Canadian teacher who inspires me, Mr. Bower, and this one is only about two and half minutes and also well worth the watch:

Speaking of what our traditions are doing to kids, have your heard of the movie a Race to Nowhere? We had a screening of it here in Chimacum. Here’s a link to my reflection of that movie.

And here are some follow-up blog posts on what this post inspired:
Awards as a Habit
Not Against Competition
Assembly sans Awards
Shift Does Happen
I Celebrated Too Soon
Healthy Discussing

For the 2012-13 school year we had monthly assemblies, led by our advisory groups (meaning planned by students), without a single awards or student of the month given out! We did do attendance awards and honor roll, but that was it.

And here’s a recent blog post on awards assemblies by Chris Wejr:
Is a School Awards Ceremony the BEST We Can Do?

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  • http://www.tammydewar.wordpress.com Tammy Dewar

    Dear Mr. Gonzalez,

    What a great post! I watched Rick Lavoie’s videos and kept trying to multitask, like usual, but found myself coming back and rewinding your vids so I didn’t miss a word. I have seen him speak in person and admire him so much. Thanks for posting these.
    You’re right there is a lot of discussion going on right now here in BC about competition in schools and the points he makes are always brought up. “What about the real world?” and “But competition is motivating for kids.” Yeah, right.
    Rick is so right. As adults we choose and decide not only when we compete, but what we want to learn. I would love, love, love to be able to play the guitar. Just some easy peasy chords and be able to sing along to something like “Brown Eyed Girl” at a party. I have taken guitar lessons in three different countries and I’m still no closer to being able to pick up a guitar and know anything… so I choose not to take guitar lessons anymore.
    As a resource teacher, I see the torture we make our students endure day in and day out. Imagine someone saying to us as adults, pick the one thing that you think you absolutely cannot do. Now we’re going to make you do that, everyday for the next 12 years. And we’re going to make you aware, in front of everybody, of exactly what you can’t do. And we’re going to call your parents and tell them you can’t do things. And then we’re going to write it down three times a year, every year so you know again what you can’t do.
    That is anything but the real world these adults speak of. But it is a very real world, for millions of kids. Is that what we want for our kids???

  • http://educatoral.com/ al_gonzalez

    I’m right there with you, Tammy. I am so glad there are people out there doing the research, asking the questions, and challenging the things we take for granted. And I’m so happy that I’ve stumbled upon these resources and speakers otherwise I’d have no reason to challenge the way I do things! I feel bad that I’ve done things that weren’t in the best interest of all children so I appreciate learning that I can do things better.

  • http://georgecouros.ca George Couros

    Thanks for the mention on this post. Definitely an interesting conversation.

    I just wanted to share this post that I written on the topic a lot earlier:

    http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/1079
    George Couros recently posted..Are we a part of the problem

  • http://educatoral.com/ al_gonzalez

    Thank you for sharing, George! I really appreciate getting to read your thoughts on this issue. The more I read and the more I hear, the more I see why changing the way we recognize kids is the way to go.

  • Scienceracquet

    This is a timely topic and I’m glad we were able to have a staff discussion. I’m not completely certain of whether we have consensus as a group but it seems there were some common ideas that were shared. Here is some of what I came away with; please correct me if I get it wrong.
    Change is welcome. We all want all kids to feel invested and engaged in any awards presentation, especially those who are frequently not recognized for what they bring to our school. While we want to reinforce students who make the effort to perform well academically, we also want to be inclusive of those whose strengths lie elsewhere. It may take a bit of a different mindset to separate scholastic achievement from all kinds of other attributes in our kids, but with the green light to experiment with various approaches to our assemblies, I suspect that the creativity of Al and his Eagle Time will inspire us to greater heights of innovation.

  • http://educatoral.com/ Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Based on some of the things said at our faculty meeting discussion and some of the things my Eagle Time kids have said the couple of times we’ve discussed this during advisory, I have a proposal.

    1. Let’s keep our regular monthly assemblies with the themes that are already in place this year. Next year we can choose the Rachel’s challenge themes or even use some of them this year as they fit.
    2. Let’s keep having Eagle Times volunteer for which assembly/theme they want to be in charge of and put on for the school.
    3. The Eagle Time in charge will determine if they have enough content for a full assembly schedule or they could choose to have their assembly only happen during Eagle Time.
    4. Now for the recognition part: I really liked the idea of having students (either from the eagle time or chosen by the eagle time) to perform or share things they are good at.

    What a better way to recognize kids for what they are good at than having them perform or share it! If it’s something like they compete around the country they could share pictures or movies of what they do. This makes it so the audience is entertained instead of punished for NOT being chosen. And we’re not giving everyone an award, which will mean nothing because everyone is getting one anyway. I’m still going to challenge giving kids an award or certificate or calling kids up to stand in front of everyone who wasn’t chosen.

    Another idea my eagle time wants to do during our assembly is say something like, “everyone with braces please stand up.” They had that idea because ours is Month of the Young Adolescent. Standing up in place is less embarrassing and you can still stay seated if you’re embarrassed and no one really knows.

    So no monthly awards and no student of the month. As for honor roll and perfect attendance, why not just ask kids to sign up if they want to get such certificates and then give it to them or mail it to them. Make it their choice and make it low key. That’s my vote. If you agree please reply to this or just like it. :)

  • http://educatoral.com/ Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Hey CMS, Joni has written a post about awards in our school at her blog too. Here’s a link to her post so that you can respond to her questions:
    http://sunmath2.blogspot.com/2012/01/awards.html

  • SallySD

    My only real concern lies with not acknowledging GPA to the extent of preparing all students for high school and beyond. With emphasis in advisory on preparing for the future and having as many options as possible, I think it is important to have middle school students aware that your GPA will be of importance when you graduate from high school. (Not to mention the price of teenage car insurance drops significantly if you make the honor roll) I think it is okay to reward those who place a high value on their academic achievements because for some it is a sign of their hard work and a gauge to let them know if they are doing their best. As for all the other regular awards I’m neutral. I do however love the idea of kid’s showcasing their talents at each assembly!

  • http://educatoral.com/ Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Our students definitely need to be educated about GPA and high school and graduation requirements. I agree on that point. Based on what I’ve been reading and after watching the movie Race to Nowhere I think it’s best for us to revisit whether or not having our high achieving students focus so much on A’s and high test scores is in the best interest for a successful future. If their goal is college I think it’s important to know that a huge percentage of kids who are on honor roll and score high on standardized achievement tests need remediation in college because preparing them to do well on standardized tests in place to other things does NOT prepare them to be good at learning and to be successful in college. So I will still argue that offering rewards such as grades and certificates for high GPA makes our highest achieving students working for the A and for the 4.0 instead of learning how to write to learn and share, instead of learning how to interpret literature or to read for the joy of it, instead of learning how to use math, and instead of learning science indepth versus just surface learning. I would like to challenge us to focus on helping our kids learn things like reading, writing, history, math and science as well as art, physical education, music, music appreciation, health, leadership, and other things that aren’t “academic” and aren’t tested on standardized tests but have much value to them INSTEAD of forcing their focus on an average of averages. We are reducing our kids and all they do to numbers. A portfolio is so much more informative than a 2.5 GPA. And how do you compare a 4.0 to a 3.8? Are all our 3.0, 2.0, or 1.0 students failures? How do they grow and learn if we make failure a bad thing.

    So this is really a whole different topic, sorry. I got off on a tangent. :) At least we are agreeing that monthly awards and student of the month are not the best way to recognize and celebrate our kids. Right? I still vote to have kids (the Eagle Time) running each assembly choose how they want to share what students can do regarding the theme or our Rachel’s Challenge work. Kids entertaining kids by sharing what they are passionate about sounds like a great show.

    Here’s a link to a Harvard study showing how many US students need remediation when their enter college: http://www.uknow.gse.harvard.edu/leadership/LP101-407.html.

    Just Google “students needing remediation in college” to find more examples.

  • Whitney Meissner

    Hmmm… I’m wishing I’d taken more notes are journaled right after the faculty meeting. I remember sharing some closing remarks about what I heard, and I think it had to do with authentic student recognition.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to student of the month, but I do wonder about having students “apply” for recognition, or holding SOM recognition in a different way than in front of the whole school.

    I’ll try to recapture some of the thoughts from last week and post more soon. Thanks for keeping us thinking!

  • http://educatoral.com/ Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Just read this blog post titled, “The folly of artificial and arbitrary recognition.” http://www.joebower.org/2012/01/folly-of-artificial-and-arbitrary.html

    Another example of how awards can harm students.

  • http://educatoral.com/ Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Here’s a good read too:
    In schools, self-esteem boosting is losing favor to rigor, finer-tuned praise
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/in-schools-self-esteem-boosting-is-losing-favor-to-rigor-finer-tuned-praise/2012/01/11/gIQAXFnF1P_story.html

    Makes a pretty good argument against giving every student an award. Now as for our lottery, kids still want that but they agree that to be most fair everyone’s name should be in the box to have an equal chance of winning a prize. That way we’re not giving lotto tickets as rewards for doing things they should be doing.

  • Pattyferry2002

    Hi mr G!

  • Guest

    Students winning awards often takes their focus off the important learning that happens in the classroom. Students focus on getting award as opposed to deep thinking.

    Isn’t this the same as teachers teaching to a test?

  • Barbara Hansen

    I was able to read quite a bit, but I can’t seem to get videos to play here at PTHS on my computer and my internet is too slow at home (it takes forever to load). I will try and watch these from another computer, like the next time I am pet sitting in Pt. Ludlow. I am so glad you sent this though because I hadn’t really thought through the whole award ceremony thing. I can see that this is quite different than, for instance, what Grant Street does which is every kid gets a recognition for something they are doing well. I am not sure if it is school wide actually, but my grandson’s class did this. Prosocial recognition is listed under protective factors for helping kids to succeed in life. It was helpful to have the difference pointed out between competitive and cooperative forms of prosocial recognition. It was also great to see that Al Gonzalez is taking a lead on making positive changes in the way his school is run and that Whitney is supportive.

  • http://educatoral.com/ Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

    Here’s another blog I came across recently of a teacher struggling with these same issues at her school: http://www.maggiehosmcgrane.com/2012/02/awards-and-rewards.html

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