Note: I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I believe I needed to provide more analysis on the issue due to the nature of the topic.
There appears to be a movement under way: the movement to end award ceremonies. I have to say I am a wee bit sceptical. I’ve been reading a few blogs and their subsequent comments and I am a little surprised by the apparent enthusiasm. Now admittedly I am not a primary or elementary teacher, whom the commenters appear to mainly be. Aside from doing some Teacher-On-Call work I cannot profess to know anything about those grade levels. Perhaps the issues are different. I can only speak about secondary schools.
I have personally participated in the selection process for year-end awards. At our school we have a philosophy of spreading the “wealth” as best we can among our students––usually the strongest and most well-rounded get it, but also do the most improved, etc. While it is true that most do not receive an award, it doesn’t mean that award ceremonies have no value. I am a little perplexed with this notion that somehow students who do not receive an award are therefore being excluded or their motivation for learning will be thwarted. I have to disagree with this philosophy. I think we as educators make too many assumptions about a student’s ability to cope. Sometimes I wonder if we are projecting our own insecurities onto the students. In our efforts to make this world a kinder and gentler place, I believe we miss the point when we consider solutions such abolishing award ceremonies. Surely there is a level of disappointment when the person beside you receives an award, but you don’t. That is a natural reaction, but one that must be processed and understood by the student. We can’t insulate every student from disappointment. This is an impossible task, and quite frankly, a dangerous one. Students need to learn to accept loss or defeat gracefully in as much as they need to be allowed to enjoy the moment of success and accept winning humbly. After all, the award is the culmination of one’s hard work, it is a symbol of one’s accomplishments. Why not recognize this?
“Our primary responsibility is to…make certain that [students] develop a repertoire of skills that will help them meet life’s inevitable challenges and disappointments.”
––Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege
I don’t think the majority of students join sports teams, for example, because they are driven solely by the trophy. Most individuals join because they enjoy the competition, the beauty of the game, the camaraderie, the challenge, the exercise. As well, the argument about awards only reinforcing extrinsic motivation are also false. Inevitably, there is the student that is motivated for the wrong reasons––awards, parents, money, etc. Hopefully one day these individuals will come to this realization, but that is one that they must arrive on their own. Most, however, are working hard for the right reasons and are learning some important life skills along the way––such as commitment, confronting adversities, and challenging one’s self––to only name a few.
Further, I would argue that students are keenly aware of their peer’s success, with or without an awards ceremony. They already know which students are strong and in which subjects. This comes as no surprise to them. Just as educators recognize strengths and weaknesses in their students, they too recognize it in their own peer group. I know this because I often hear that so-and-so student is really good at this or that. So why try to disguise a truth that certain people excel at certain things? It rings false. I believe we are insulting their intelligence by trying to include everyone––where “everyone is a winner”. Everyone on this planet at some point will lose at something. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We shouldn’t teach avoidance. Is recognizing everyone or no one really a better alternative to recognizing some? I question this logic. What are we teaching our students if we do this? What are the consequences?
“Students should be encouraged to push for their personal best, despite knowing that they may not be the best.”
I propose a different alternative. Keep the award ceremonies. Recognize strength. Without it, how can we determine excellence? How do we determine the gold standard? However, this is not to say that we don’t recognize multiple or diverse talents. Talents come in many forms. We shouldn’t focus solely on academics and sports. While important, there is more to life and we ought to recognize that diversity. Recognize artistic and technical strength, applied skills. At the risk of stereotyping, the student who is a whizz at physics, many not be the best athlete. I teach my students to discover their innate strength, but to also know that hard work is a necessary condition to achieve at a high level. Therefore, allow the bar to be set high in all disciplines, so that other students push themselves to reach it. In truth, most won’t, but that is not the point; some will, and that is the point. There should be no illusion about this.
Is it possible as educators to get students to achieve the highest standard in all things? I know I can’t––and I’m nearing forty. However, just because I didn’t excel at everything didn’t mean I didn’t value what I was good at. Similarly, because I knew I excelled at a few things, didn’t mean that I was a failure when others would excel at different things. We need to celebrate the success of others as well. This is equally as important in the emotional development of children. Are we not becoming a little too self-absorbed as a society when we can’t stick out our hand and congratulate another for their achievements? Doesn’t that demonstrate character and fortitude? Doesn’t that have value? We should use these moments of both failure and success as learning experiences, personal growth experiences. We should be encouraging our students to get up and brush themselves off and try again.
Students should know the benchmark of excellence, but they should also be realistic about their expectations. Students should be encouraged to push for their personal best, despite knowing that they may not be the best. Truth is, there will always be people who are better than us in anything that we do––just like there will always be someone taller or shorter than you. Rather than focussing on notions of absolutes––winners versus losers––we should be teaching our students to acknowledge their current ability and build upon it. Not for the sake of awards, but for the sake of their growth. If anything, we should be placing more emphasis on “most improved” awards. Instead of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by getting rid of award ceremonies altogether, perhaps we should be encouraging students to achieve their best despite the outcome. After all, students need to develop their sense of self through exploration and challenge and if they miss out not receiving an award here or there, then that is ok too.