Prize Giving: Celebrating success or stigmatising failure?

boy standing on a rock above the clouds at sunset
On top of the world

It is that time of year; successful students, arms full of certificates, trophies, books and envelopes stuffed with book tokens, stumbling across stages all over the country.  Principals praising the students for their engagement, their tenacity, for overcoming challenges, balancing the pressures of academic study with sport, the arts, community service and coming out victorious and ready to take on everything the world can throw at them.  Student leaders waxing lyrical about the love and commitment shown by their teachers and mentors and the support their peers have provided on the rocky road through school.

It is indeed a time for celebration and well-justified too. But as I watched Prize Giving at my son’s school yesterday evening I couldn’t help but think of the 90% of kids who don’t have their successes celebrated in such a public way.  The ones who are expected to sit through the ceremony to collectively celebrate the school’s successes but who don’t win prizes.  I wondered who it is all for.  What is the purpose?  Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe in celebrating and sharing success but I believe in recognising everyone’s successes in all their guises.  And I’m not convinced that a rewards system is the best way to engage children in learning.

George Couros writes eloquently on the subject in this blogpost “The Impact of Rewards” so I won’t repeat what he has said but I will offer this quote from Alfie Kohn:

“In short, good values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards–like punishments–are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case.” (Alfie Kohn, The Risk of Rewards)

And I have severe misgivings about a system that ranks students with a top ten system.  What criteria are used?  Are they open, transparent and fair?  Massey University education researcher Jenny Poskitt says;

“If you want to motivate and inspire kids to strive for excellence in all endeavours, they need to perceive that it’s fair, need to know what the game is and how to play it, to be inspired. If it’s not fair, or they don’t know how to get it, then it’s not going to motivate them.”  (Schools allay fears over school prizes)

In my experience the value of awards decreases for those kids who constantly get them whereas for the kids who never get them the damage to their self-esteem and pride is significant.

One of the things my husband and I had to do yesterday was persuade our son to attend the prize giving evening. He wasn’t getting an award.  None of his friends were getting awards. None of his friends were planning on attending.  The school releases the students at lunch time with the expectation that because they get the afternoon off they should attend the prize giving evening.  He didn’t see why he needed to sit through 2 and a half hours of speeches and a litany of names being read out and prize winners traipsing across the stage (many of them more than once).

He said it made him feel stupid and useless and reinforced his sense of ‘failure.’  We assured him that he is not stupid, reminded him of his skills and achievements.  The things he does like coaching a junior hockey team, and putting himself out there as an umpire, like teaching himself to play the guitar from Youtube videos.  We tried the arguments that it wasn’t about him, it was about sharing and recognising other people’s success, the school’s success and being proud to be part of that collective.   He wasn’t buying it!  And, to be honest, I get it. We have always supported the school prize giving in the past and we have always encouraged our boys to attend.  I have spent 30 years as a teacher attending prize giving occasions and I have occasionally questioned the need for them but, on the whole, just accepted them as a part of the school calendar. But he was so distressed about it that it really made me think.  I wondered as I watched how he was feeling, what impact it was gong to have on his motivation to learn, did we do the right thing in making him come?

The more I heard the word ‘success’ the more I wondered whose success we were celebrating and why we were doing it in the way that we were.  The more I heard the word success the more I wondered about its opposite: failure. If the students on the stage were successful, are all the rest failures?  Of course they are not, but if you are a kid sitting in a theatre who isn’t getting a prize watching those that are being lauded, how would you feel?

The New Zealand Curriculum vision is to develop confident, connected, involved, lifelong learners. The demands of living in an ever changing 21st century world require competencies and capabilities such as resilience, adaptability, communication skills, empathy, flexibility, problem-solving and creativity.  Qualities and dispositions that are difficult to measure.  So no prizes.  But the 90% who didn’t get celebrated yesterday evening or indeed around the country right now probably have them in shedloads.  Who recognises them?  When does anyone tell them they are valuable and worthwhile members of society, that the skills they have are worth celebrating?

In schools all over the world  the ‘industrial model of education’ is being shunned because it is no longer fit for purpose.  Is the end of year “Prize Giving” ceremony just a hang over from the industrial age?  Do we see the tradition of it through rose coloured spectacles?  Is it the tradition that we hold so tightly on to?   Because we’ve always done it that way?  We live in a knowledge economy where content is freely available, the way we learn is changing, the things we learn are changing, the way we assess is changing.  What does ‘success’ now look like?  Will the way that we celebrate ‘success’ change?   I wonder.

 

 

Advertisements