Saturday, October 9, 2010

Another Intrinsic Killer: Awards Ceremonies

Over the past year and a half I have changed my opinion about award ceremonies for students. It was a great shift for me. My new thoughts on award ceremonies has lead to many debates with other educators as well as friends. I submit that award ceremonies do far more harm than good because they do not provide the best conditions for a learning environment. Moreover, trying to bribe students with extrinsic motivators like awards damages intrinsic motivation.

Below I provide some of the reasons others believe awards are good and my rebuttal. I also provide some reasons why they are bad. Moreover, I include some excellent quotes from other blog posts which have inspired me to write this one and some links of my favorite posts on the subject.

1. Students need a role model to look to:
Students will not see somebody that beats them for an award as a role model. They will see them as competition and somebody they have to beat in the future. Role models do not need to be given an award to be looked upon as a role model.

2. Awards are the real world:
I am not sure where one would get the idea that there are a lot of awards in a person’s day to day life. We do not have a teacher of the year award in our school or district, so why should we have such awards for students? Moreover, the awards that are given out in the adult world, many would argue,are based on politics, not merit. I am not trying to take anything away from any adult that deserved an award here, just pointing out that many awards are given based on who you know.

3. Giving everyone an award cheapens awards:
This comment is irrelevant if awards are eliminated. I like the term recognition instead of awards. As teachers we want each and every student to improve in his/her learning. Recognizing each student’s growth makes more sense to me than choosing just one and isolating the rest.

Teachers are supposed to help each student grow and learn. They should not choose one over another, but create the conditions that help each child flourish in his/her class. How can one create those conditions if some students are given awards over another? This is not inclusion. It takes a paradigm shift to get away from awards. Why would we isolate many for the sake of a few?

The main goal in my class is learning. Classrooms set up based on the goal of competing for an award (and rewards) hurt learning. As Alfie Kohn notes in his article, Is Competition Ever Appropriate in a Cooperative Classroom?:

“Competing reduces the probability that cooperation, which does promote learning, will take place; it generates anxiety; it leads children to attribute their victory or loss to factors beyond their control, such as innate ability or luck, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will try harder next time; and it functions as an extrinsic motivator, reducing interest in the task and creative performance just as other artificial inducements have been repeatedly shown to do.

Further, Kohn says,“Researchers have found that competitive structures reduce generosity, empathy, sensitivity to others' needs, accuracy of communication, and trust.”

By no means is my list exhaustive of the reasons why awards cause harm and hurt learning. I do hope that others who feel awards are a positive thing reflect on the practice of awards.

To end this post I would like to share a few quotes and links from some of my Twitter friends who have written about this topic:

“So my question is: why are we still having huge ceremonies that award a select few and fail to recognize so many strengths, talents, and interest of our students?” Chris Wejr

“Awards eventually lose their luster to students that get them, while often hurting the self-esteem and pride of those who don’t.” George Couros

"School as family:
I have shown my belief that we want to create a family environment in our school. I do not have my own kids, but I do not remember my mom and dad annually or semi-annually recognizing our achievements as their children (it would be so easy to make a brother joke here but I am going to refrain). As parents, it is important to let your kids know when you are seeing good things from your kids, WHEN you are seeing them. I also do not remember my mom and dad sorting us by who did what better in our family. We each had our own unique gifts as kids in my family, and we were recognized for that. Should it not be the same in a school? Does the term “caring and safe” match with “ranking and sorting”? Awards definitely lend to the latter and do nothing to create that caring and safe environment." George Couros

"Some of the most thankful parents are those who have children who would never be invited to be recognized by their school's honor ceremonies." Joe Bower

Recognizing the Valedictorian in All by Principal Eric Sheninger

A New Era of Ceremonies by Chris Wejr

Death of an Awards Ceremony by Chris Wejr

Shared Decisions and Abolishing Awards by Chris Wejr

The Impact of Awards by George Couros

Unconditional Recognition by Joe Bower

The Problem with Award Ceremonies by David Wees


  1. This is something I always think about. How do we feel when other educators get awards? Do we feel they are deserving or do we often wonder why we did not get it ourselves? Does this create community or destroy it? Does it inspire us to do better or does it create levels of animosity? If I gave awards to the "best" teachers on our staff, that would create more issues than solve.

    Great post!

  2. I agree George. Also, giving out such awards is so subjective. That can only lead to animosity.

  3. We have an awards ceremony at our school that has been revamped because of problems with the assembly. Kids who were not (and probably felt they would never be) recognized were been insulting and rude to those who were receiving awards. It was quite uncomfortable for all because the students getting the awards wanted to disappear (and not go up on stage to receive the award). It's been changed so that only students who are receiving awards attend the assembly and their parents are invited.

    I give you background information before I tell you about an experience/situation of my son who is in grade ten (where I teach). He is in an enriched class because he likes intellectual stimulation it provides. He does not like homework and he does not complete his homework and assignments to the best of his ability, but he likes to read and converse about the topics that interest him. He's had marks in the 90's and marks that are just passing; thus, even though he's quite intelligent and interesting to talk to, he's never been on the honour roll. The Enriched History teacher took the whole class to the assembly thinking that they were all supposed to attend. My son, sitting with all the students in the front rows of the auditorium, came to realize that everyone was being called up on stage to receive recognition for being on the honour roll and he knew that there was no way that he was on the honour roll. He sat there becoming more and more motified as the alphabet became closer to his last name...then he got up suddenly and fled the auditorium. It was a demoralizing experience! He didn't care that he wasn't getting award, but he did care that everyone's attention was going to be drawn to the fact that he didn't belong there!

    He has never been motivated by the idea of getting an award, and even though I'd like him to be more motivated/committed to his formal education, I have respect for the fact that he knows his own mind and is motivated by what is of interest to him. Many of his teachers have told me that he says the most interesting things.

  4. Wow, thanks for sharing your story. Indeed, that must have been demoralizing for him. It is interesting to note in your story that the school continued to give out awards, in private no less, once they deemed they had a problem with the original format. Perhaps they should have noticed the demoralizing effect that it was having on the student body and thought of an alternative method that recognized each student's strength.

  5. I appreciated your comments. Perceptions of scarcity and competition distort our world view. Artificial grade scarcity and award competitions is not what public education should (or is) about.

  6. I find this very interesting. As an adult, I worked in a profession (journalism) where there were awards handed out annually. Plenty of reporters said they meant nothing, but deep down I think they liked them. I know I did. I'm very proud of one of mine.

    I think this may be based on the individual. Some are motivated by awards and some aren't.

    This is also relevant: at my junior high school, kids were exempt from final exams if they had an 80 average or higher. One smart kid had to write just one exam one year, while the rest of us wrote more. He was picked on because of it. The next year his marks dropped and I think this was intentional so he could fit in and not be picked on. He wrote five that year. Thus, the award was counter productive.

  7. Thanks for sharing Brian. That was an interesting story about the smart kid who purposely dropped his marks so he would not get picked on. Indeed, that did seem to be counter productive...As far as your award, congratulations. It sounds like the awards were given out with not much debate amongst peers. Indeed,some adults are motivated by awards and some are not(I am not saying you are.)My comments are mostly directed at awards for young people...Dan Pink says we are motivated best when we have purpose, autonomy and mastery in our jobs. Check out his talk here ( for a further explanation.

  8. Thanks so much for promoting the power of recognizing all students. I look forward to hearing more about your journey in your school to change the way students are recognized. Alfie Kohn, Carol Dweck, Sir Ken Robinson, and Daniel Pink have all shaped the way I view the way we recognize kids. It is my hope that the ideas of these authors as well as George, Eric, and Joe one day become the norm. Thanks for sharing the links as well.

  9. Thank you for this post. As a parent and a school board trustee, this has given me much to reflect on. In our district, awards ceremonies honour the gamut of skills and accomplishments; some memorial awards were established to recognize the great qualities of kids who left us too soon, seen in kids who came after. In secondary school, many awards carry cash value which helps those pursuing post-secondary studies.

    On the other hand, I am conflicted about this and the potential negative impact it has on kids. Again thank you for drawing attention to something that bears discussion and some deep thought. This will be a meaningful and important topic to explore with administrators and parents.

  10. jehecomfort, Thanks for your insightful comments. Thanks for reading and participating in this important discussion.

  11. Great post. I had always thought about this, but this put what I was thinking into clear words. Why is learning put in this race paradigm? In the new world we're supposed to be working together, so if we are going to give awards, shouldn't they be group awards, but again that's still fostering unhealthy environment.


  12. Hello. I'm a reporter with the Globe and Mail and I'm headed up to Iqaluit for a couple weeks to look into the rising crime rate and associated issues in the territory. One of the the things I want to research is education. I'm intrigued by the ideas you've posted here and would love to talk when I get up there. Any chance you'd be free over the coming weeks? I'm at

  13. Well said. I have had to give out awards where by using the specific criteria the school provided there were only a couple of students who didn't get awards. Very difficult situation. I agree with you on many of your points and thank you for saying them.

    The Cheeky Lit Teacher - I have taught many gifted students and have met quite a few to whom awards and grades aren't important. Doesn't mean they aren't smart, just different priorities. This can be difficult to get across to parents and teachers.

  14. Nice story! Thanks for sharing your story with us. At the end you have shared some of the quotes one that i liked the most is" Awards eventually lose their luster to students that get them, while often hurting the self-esteem and pride of those who don’t." Thanks for sharing this lovely story with us.
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  16. Thank you ! I am looking for research/ support from an expert that addresses the idea I have (and you too I think) that awards can actually damage the kids who don't get them, which is of course the majority of students. Do they act out in their feelings of being marginalized, do they become discouraged and do worse in their studies etc..??
    Do you have any ideas of where (from whom) I could find support in these ideas?
    I'm a parent and a teacher struggling with this issue, thinking about how I can approach my daughters high school.