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I'm Simply Wondering

Alfie Kohn posted something this week on his Twitter feed that caught my attention. It caused me to reflect on educational assumptions, practices and traditions: much like I hope will occur with consumers of my weekly posts on this blog.

Before I disclose his post, allow me to create some context.

At my last school, we had a proud tradition of recognizing students for their accomplishments as we approached the close of the school year. Teachers in each academic and elective discipline were tasked with identifying the student who most stood out for their achievement over the course of the year. As ours was a grade 6-12 school, there were parallel awards for middle school and high school students.

  • Outstanding high school Chemistry student.

  • Outstanding middle school student in Social Studies.

  • Outstanding middle school dancer.

  • Outstanding high school instrumentalist.

You get the idea. One kid from each area was recognized during an all-school assembly. They received a certificate, a congratulatory hug from the presenting teacher and well-deserved applause. It was a proud annual tradition.

Some teachers had a hard time selecting a single student. “Can’t I choose two?” was a common plea. But, we held true to the tradition - you must select the, single, outstanding student. Sometimes, they would get creative and come up with some sub-categories to get around this expectation. This would be met with good natured eye rolling by their colleagues.

Kohn’s tweet caused me to wonder just who this practice was actually for. Teachers appeared to enjoy the role of “good guy” in the spotlight in front of an audience. And I know parents loved it. We would go to great lengths to make certain that parents were made aware that their child was going to be recognized and invite them to this grand event. If we occasionally overlooked a parent on the list and they were unaware, there was hell to pay. What about the kids? They certainly enjoyed any occasion to be out of class, sitting with their friends and cheering their peers. But, did this tradition, in and of itself, motivate them to do their best so they might have a chance at receiving one of these prestigious awards? In a sea of 600 or so students, approximately 35-40 would receive recognition. (That’s excluding the seniors - they had their own duplicate event in front of the entire school.) What about the 550 students who left empty handed? Aside form the socialization and the opportunity to support their classmates, did they value this? Were we causing some unintentional harm?

I don’t have the answer. I’m simply wondering.

Another school where I had the privilege of serving as the principal had a recognition tradition with an even longer history. That tradition insisted that every child, each and every one in this diverse and heavily impacted middle school, would receive public acknowledgement at the end of the year for some “job well done.” Again, during an all-school assembly, every advisory teacher would present each of his or her charges with a congratulatory certificate. Frequently, other teachers would offer input to assist in defining the award - “Sally is great in math.” “Jerry does an outstanding job in PE.” “Mark is a gifted artist.” “Gwen is a natural leader.” Sometimes, however, there was no input to rely on, leaving it to the teacher to come up with something appropriate. Occasionally, they had to reach pretty deep to identify anything positive to put on paper. On the day, each advisory teacher would come to the stage with his/her students and make the presentations. “Great in Science.” Talented singer.” “Her hair ribbons always match her outfit.”

Each kid left the gathering with a certificate in hand. Did they appreciate this effort or did they see through it as some kind of charade? Did it motivate them to strive to do their best or did they simply find it mildly amusing? Again, did we cause harm?

Some folks would reasonably argue that the second scenario is a bit preposterous. They would point out that ours is a competitive society, one with both winners and losers. I get it. But, it still breaks my heart to see a team of children play their heart out only to come up short, earning the title of “losing team.” For some kids, a hair ribbon award might be the only public acknowledgement they will ever get.

I don’t have the answer. I’m just wondering.

We continue this practice into adulthood and into our profession. Does “Teacher of the Year” ring a bell? What an honor! (I coveted the title, teacher or administrator of the year. Don’t you?) But, do we run the risk of suggesting (inconspicuously, of course) that all of the other dedicated, committed and deserving teachers serving students brilliantly every day are somehow “less than?”

I don’t have the answer. I’m just wondering.

So, here’s Alfie Kohn’s tweet, posted on June 25, 2021:

“awards assembly n. An event, often held in an auditorium, that instantly transforms most people present into losers -- while simultaneously undermining the intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, and collaborative orientation of winners and losers alike.”

It should be easy to see why this captured my attention.

If he’s correct, and, based on my experience, I have reason to believe he is, we have a problem. In an effort to be congratulatory and supportive, we may cause an unintended negative consequence: undermining the intrinsic motivation, self-confidence and collaborative orientation of our students.

I don’t think for a second that anyone who organizes an all-school end of the year awards assembly is doing it to undermine anything. But, if that’s the end result, we had better establish some different practices. Assuming Kohn is correct, as I’m prone to do, the damage may have been done this spring. Now’s the perfect time to plan a better approach for next year.

How about this?

Reflection is a powerful vehicle for children and adults alike. Fostering a culture of reflection offers an opportunity to accomplish the recognition of individual growth and accomplishment in a manner that is constructive, inclusive, safe and non-threatening.

Rather than relying on the perception, the judgement, or even the creativity of others in identifying strengths and accomplishments to be celebrated, let it be a product of personal reflection by creating opportunities for students to conduct their own self inventory as a component of taking responsibility for their education. It could be structured by asking each student to respond to questions like:

  • What can I do now that would have been impossible for me at the beginning of the year?

  • What are five things I learned about myself this year?

  • What have been my greatest academic accomplishments?

  • What continuing challenges do I face, challenges that I would like to continue to work on next year.

  • What am I proudest of?

  • What award might I deserve, based on my effort, my growth and my accomplishments this year?

Then give each student a blank certificate. A certificate for them to fill out themselves based on their personal reflection. A certificate that reflects an accomplishment that they are proud of. A certificate that they can share in a safe semi-public forum (advisory, homeroom or something similar). A certificate that they can proudly carry home, legitimized by the counter signature of a teacher or school official, to share with their family and tape to the front of the refrigerator.

If we truly desire for each child to receive the education they deserve, we cannot continue to promote cultures of winners and losers. That may be acceptable in athletic contests, but not in classrooms. Effective classrooms and effective teaching must promote and build upon intrinsic motivation, not diminish it. Effective schools must build on the collaborative orientation of all kids while supporting the development their self-confidence, not undermining them as Kohn correctly suggests.

While I may not have the answers and I continue to wonder, I do know this. True recognition is a product of seeing and celebrating personal, incremental growth. It can’t be limited to “best in class.” Rather, it must represent “the best I can be and am becoming.”

That said, I continue to wonder.


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