When Paula Gosal took over as principal of the Chilliwack Middle School, she walked smack into the middle of a long-standing debate among the staff over awards. It wasn’t exactly a rumble that Gosal was tossed into so abruptly in the fall of 2016. Most of the teachers at this school for seventh- through ninth-graders in British Columbia had read the literature on awards, and were looking for feedback and support from their new principal. The majority wanted to do away with the school’s awards and awards assemblies, and needed the backing of their principal to make it happen.

“I did not have to be persuaded,” Gosal said. She called for a vote, and the staff unanimously decided to stop handing out awards.

Though data on the extent of school award-giving is scarce, the practice of delivering them is so customary that the Common Application to U.S. colleges includes spaces to report honors and other forms of recognition. Alongside their ubiquity, however, is abundant research showing that awards, rewards and other external incentives undermine intrinsic motivation.

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science—and also one of the most ignored,” wrote Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pursuit of the trinket or prize extinguishes what might have been a flicker of internal interest in a subject, suffocating the genuine sources of motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose. “To say ‘do this, and you’ll get that’ makes people lose interest in ‘this,’ ” said Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Awards are that much worse than rewards, Kohn added, because they are simply prizes made artificially limited.

For the majority of students who don’t receive public honors, awards ceremonies spur boredom, anger or resentment, said Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri—St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. Watching a peer receive an award inspires not a drive to succeed but rather a lingering bitterness, as well as an unfortunate association of school-sanctioned success with tedium.

“A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers,” Kohn said.

Understanding the intellectual rationale for doing away with awards, as Gosal and her staff did, made their decision a lot easier. But there were other reasons. Teachers at Chilliwack had been bothered by the exclusionary nature of the awards ceremonies; they noticed the same students and families being recognized year after year. As well, Gosal had been troubled in the past by the ugly encounters she’d witnessed among teachers who had argued for or against a particular student receiving an award. “My experience of watching teachers debate over children was unsettling,” Gosal said.

She and her staff also sought to change what motivated kids to work, so that they’d learn for the sake of it rather than for a prize. And they all had begun to realize that student life outside the classroom was just as rich as it was inside, and that those endeavors were just as worthy of notice.

Instead of being selected by the school for achievements in pre-determined categories, students were able to recognize their own achievements. (Courtesy of Paula Gosal) (Courtesy of Paula Gosal)

In May of 2017, Gosal told parents in her weekly newsletter that the June awards ceremony was off. Instead, the school would be hosting a success showcase for all students. “I wanted to marry the two worlds, who you are inside of school and who you are outside,” Gosal explained. The showcase would be more than a talent show, she added. It’s “this is who I am,” she said.

About 200 parents and children walked through the school halls on the night of the showcase. Everywhere, the students displayed their unique skills and interests: some danced, played a jazz set or sang. Others dribbled and scored on the basketball court, or demonstrated knot-tying, or dueled one another at a gaming station they had set up especially for the showcase. One child with training in professional dog handling showed her prowess to the crowd, and scores of others displayed their art, poetry and other creative work in the school gallery. Plastered throughout the school were one-page statements every child filled out that finished the phrase, “I am proud of ___.”

Chris Wejr, the principal of James Hill Elementary School in British Columbia, eliminated awards and the ceremonies that go with them after talking with teachers and parents about the school’s practices and mission. He had wondered if the regular “student-of-the-month” assembly violated the everyday message of community they were attempting to build; the award seemed to be suggesting that “we’re one community—but you’re a little bit better,” he said. This approach also seemed to contradict the strengths-based model of education they sought to instill, which emphasized each student’s abilities and aptitudes.

“Every single person in school has strengths, skills and talents, and it’s our job to bring them out more,” Wejr said.

Courtesy of Paula Gosal

Together with the staff, they decided that handing out awards neither aligned with their beliefs nor brought out the best in their students—even for the sliver of kids who received awards. “Winners” got the message that product rather than process is what matters in education, Wejr said. “Learning should be the reward,” he added. And the far more plentiful “losers” heard that they weren’t good enough to be spotlighted on stage, or that their unique combination of attributes didn’t truly count.

Wejr replaced the ceremony that called out one student with a series of assemblies that highlighted chunks of fifth-graders, so that by the end of the year every graduating child was honored. Students said they learned more about their peers in the ceremony, Wejr said. And some appreciative parents approached him afterward to say that their child had never been recognized this way before. “If we believe all students can achieve, our practices have to align with that,” he said.

Neither Wejr nor Gosal heard much in the way of criticism from parents or students after they eliminated their school awards. From a population of 575 students, just two parents at Chilliwack Middle School sent emails questioning the decision, and social media channels were quiet. “The ease of the change has been surprising,” Gosal said. Though Wejr heard some grumbling outside the school about the educational system drifting toward mediocrity, he was quick to point out that marks of achievement at James Hill Elementary School have gone up since they eliminated awards.

“It’s not an award at the end of the year that drives achievement,” Wejr said. Excellence comes from a school culture that fosters collaboration and provides opportunities for students to lead, especially in those areas where children have special talents and skills, he added.

When people challenge him about the wisdom of removing school prizes, Wejr asks, “When was the last time you handed out family awards?” If school is an actual community, separating out individuals for special notice makes no sense. School leaders ought to be looking beyond the short term and thinking more about what kinds of adults they’re trying to develop. He added, “We hope that they continue to develop their best selves for their own benefit—not because someone tells them to or because there’s an award at the end of the year.”

How a School Ditched Awards and Assemblies to Refocus on Kids and Learning 1 December,2017Linda Flanagan

  • And you wonder why no one learns anything useful and the education gap remains. Rather than focusing on the trees (awards) why not focus on the forest (empowering ALL teachers to empower ALL students by replacing the incumbent, 20th century, factory based, one size fits all teaching with research based, best practices learning methodology)?. But of course that would require an interest to change, an interest to focus on advancing student success outcomes for all students, access to the research and appropriate implementation of what is proven to work. By hey, it’s far easier to agonize on awards, which are proven to NOT add value, but to decrease motivation. is this unique? Of course not. This is why student outcomes, for all students remain mediocre

  • John Overton

    Rewards are real life; not everyone can be a winner every time or at everything, and children need to appreciate their strengths, weaknesses and examine their motivations. “Learning to fail” is a basic life skill that is a prerequisite to real success.

    Also, it is a falsity to say that rewards prevent genuine interest in the underlying material: it is usually the case that the underlying material and the manner in which it is presented is so boring that students need rewards to learn it at all. Teachers have to face up to the fact that in most schools unfortunately, “learning is (not) the reward”. What of course takes its place if learning is not the reward and academic achievement is not rewarded is Social Networking and Gaming, the greatest threats to literacy.

    An event that celebrates everyone’s accomplishments and interests is just fine, but is not a motivational substitute for academic achievement, and to put dancing, basketball, and gaming on a par with literacy and numeracy is just silly.

    • I hate to tell you, but basketball has been on a par with numeracy and literacy at least since I was in high school in the 1970s, and I’m pretty sure that this was the case for prior generations as well. As a 33-year veteran secondary school educator, I say that the importance school-sponsored athletics is the 2-ton elephant in the room of education reform.

      • Darleen Saunders

        It need not be in schools, if we look at other countries. Local sports clubs sponsored by the parks districts or cities are a much more economical way of bringing sports to the community. This moves sports out of school and bring phsycial education back into schools. With citywide clubs the community can build large sport facilities used by all students rather than each school having to pay for individual pools, courts, or stadiums.

      • Elisa Fischer Somit

        THANK YOU Penny.

  • Gale Stanford

    I applaud the administrator for making the change from awards to displaying success. As educators, we must recognize that times have changed. What we use to do, is not necessarily what we should be doing today. Let’s celebrate the success of all students. And, let’s give the award to that teacher, administrator, or campus who encourages, promotes, and enables success in all students.

  • Dennis

    This is political correctness gone amok. So if the teachers and principal are really on board with this, there should be no teacher or principal awards either since they are part of the community. Students need to be prepared for real life. Not everyone in the real world is paid equally and students should learn that there is value in hard work

  • ron schaffer

    This is sooo overdue! My god, the frivolous awards I’ve had to watch be distributed as a principal for two decades went to the same kids, the same families year after year after year! I would think to myself, “and the point of this is….what? 94% of my school population would sit through these idiotic exercises with no real interest or or caring but instead boredom and resentment. The research does not lie, and it is high time our schools cleaned up this mess. The institution of a success showcase is genius and should be seen as a positive step in the evolution of what great schools should become.

  • Keith F

    The “everyone get’s a trophy” generation, except in reverse. I am a high school teacher and I think this is crazy. The real world “rewards” those who achieve and this is an “unprogressive” fact of life.

    • Trisha

      The real world minimally rewards those who achieve. Adult achievement is largely due to ability to navigate politically or having skill in something that people need. Think of how few names you recognize for people that invented things that we value, and we don’t know them for being wealthy either. I was an engineer until my field went to China, and no project was completed by a star employee who was rewarded. Projects were completed by working together as a team including the people with dirty hands, the people who planned, the people who crunched numbers, and the people who wrote about the results. I worked in all the positions at some time in that career, and my maximum reward was to present on a project at a national meeting. In this process we were intrinsically rewarded by the camaraderie while bringing each project to completion, especially if somebody could make use of the results. We supported each other and shared knowledge to enhance the strength of the team, and our learning improved steeply. That is the experience that the students in this school receive, along with the confidence that they can do. That is true winning.

  • The point of awarding recognition is not to motivate achievement but to recognize it.

    • nitrab

      Seems like they are recognizing achievement which comes in a variety of forms.

  • William Clapp

    This is really good. I hope it is adopted at other schools.

  • Darleen Saunders

    You are on to something here. When students graduate from high school they know little to nothing about what they are good at, where they might fit into the world, or what they may want to pursue, because school is a series of check boxes just the same for everyone. Einstein would have been encouraged to bring up his grade in Spanish, or history and discouraged from taking anymore science classes for fun.

    What struck me was that these children had instrests outside of school that the teachers knew nothing about. Next step would be to have students be able to incorporate these interests in school as well. All students don’t have to be on the same page at the same time. We do this for the convenience of teachers and so that they can be assessed according to rubrics. Real learning doesn’t need a rubric. Real freedom to learn is spontaneous.

    When we see how those little kindergarteners who come to school all bright and eager to learn are turned into weary students of sit and be taught by first grade. Our schools could be learning centers where children come to facilitate their own learning at their own pace. We’re getting there. The end goal must change in order for things to really change.

  • nitrab

    As a kid who often got top awards in school, I have to say that this would have been a better approach for me. Yes, I was at the top in grades, but the traditional system of awards didn’t help me recognize my real strengths and feel truly competent. I just felt insecure when I didn’t win the top award every single time.

  • Katie McNamara

    Agree! Things I am most proud of about myself aren’t things there are awards for.

  • Trevor Olfert

    Not sure why this is ‘big news’ or perceived as innovative. I’m kind of disappointed/embarrassed that it took them this long to realize. They should be really be looking at ‘Growth Mindset’ vs ‘Fixed Mindset’ and who those perspectives drastically student engagement and motivation. Nitrab’s comment below is probably the most insightful about how rewards and labels of achievement influence student perspective/feelings about themselves and what their potential really is.

  • Parent

    On
    the fence on this. They give out awards for the best basketball team
    at basketball tournaments, and for the best dance performance at dance
    competitions… they don’t try to recognize someone’s writing ability or
    math skills there. I get what the school is trying to do, but where
    else are you going to recognize scholastic achievement other than in the
    school? Somehow it is great for the school to recognize a kid who spends every waking moment practicing skateboard tricks or guitar riffs, but not to recognize a kid who spends the same amount of time practicing math facts or reading or doing some other thing the school is supposed to be teaching? (And as for the same kids getting the same awards every year
    being “boring,” giving Michael Phelps the same award 23 times wasn’t
    boring. It recognized his achievement. Every. Single. Time.) Showcase,
    yes. Specific recognition for school based achievement, also yes.

  • Tim Reilly

    We have not had awards- or even an honor roll for 22 years. We honor all of our students. All 1035 of them! It is no surprise that the “respecting all” culture has resulted in 23 years of strong enrollment. We celebrate virtues, not achievement levels. It is hard to resist the joyful culture that results when our trophy case displays outreach to others! Funny thing, we are also a Blue Ribbon school!

  • John Tompkins

    Enjoyed this article… as I was always hesitant to hand out a quantity of one – science award as a department chair who had never met or had the student in class….awkward and regretfully.
    And cannot this be extended to schools getting awards? “Building report cards?” “Governors Achieve Award”?….for a governor that never visited the building? Reminds me of a book “The Mismeasure of Man” Stephen J.Gould

  • Ursula

    What an excellent initiative worthy not just to be considered but also followed. Towards the end of last year at our valedictory ceremony our top achiever, totally disillusioned for not receiving the principal”s award, threw all his trophies into the audience while storming out of the hall. A great learning opportunity went by not just for both the student as well as the other students but also for the staff as we did not seize the moment for what it was. Emotions of shock and disappointment resulted in a great lesson missed, if not the greatest, for that top achiever. Never can such blatant disrespect be condoned but to leave it only at punishment for the young student as this was such a big outcry of some of the issues addressed in this very thought provoking article.

Author

Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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