May we exist like a lotus, At home in the muddy water.” Zen Buddhist saying.

I was recently contacted by a mainstream media outlet. They were covering a contentious education topic and wondered if I’d contribute. After a few minutes talking with a producer it became obvious what they wanted. They were looking for someone to represent a single, extreme viewpoint on a somewhat complex topical issue.

I took time and explained that my thoughts and opinions were more nuanced than a single position. The producer quickly lost interest and said they’d let me know if they needed any further interviews. I’m still waiting :)

Our positions on important issues are increasingly represented by a simple “yes” or “no” . Fuelled by digital tools, that count ones and zeros, our opinions are reduced to up-votes or down-votes. We “like” or “retweet” what we agree with and ignore what we don’t.

It’s understandable. There’s a torrent of information rushing at us twenty-four hours every day and most of us don’t have the time to understand, consider other viewpoints or even just think about controversial issues. So we click and move on. Making a choice, any choice, is calming, but deludes us into thinking that the world is simple. That it’s divided into right or wrong, good or bad, with our own judgements lining up squarely in the “good” column, of course.

Increasingly educators are encouraged to see matters of our professional practice with the same good/bad framework. However this isn’t how education works. Education isn’t a matter of absolutes, of right or wrong, but rather of better or worse. The effectiveness of any practice varies from student to student and students are constantly changing and developing at different rates. What worked last week may no longer be useful. Experienced educators understand that education is a very messy, muddy endeavour with little or no hard and fast rules.

It’s difficult to be a practicing educator while being an absolutist about any educational issue. When someone asks me what I think about something in education I often end up replying “it depends”, because almost anything you can think of can be effective and useful in the right context or useless in the wrong one.

The ongoing “math wars” are a great example of this. The popular discussion in the mainstream media identifies two positions. You are either “back to basics” or “discovery learning”. You either think students should be memorizing multiplication tables and algorithms or doing open-ended problem solving.

In reality the whole back to basics vs discovery math is a false dichotomy. Teachers don’t use one strategy or another exclusively, but rather a blend of approaches which vary and will be modified to meet the changing needs of their students. I wish teaching were as easy and simply applying a single instructional strategy, but it simply isn’t.

This reductionism can be seen in the approach to many education issues. While I oppose high stakes testing I use standardized tests in my classroom all the time. Full Day Kindergarten is a wonderful thing for some kids and useless for others. Some students benefit from learning cursive, others are harmed by it. And so on.

This is an important thing for educators to remember. Each time we enter into a simplified, absolute discussion about education we should resist the temptation to pick a side. The notion that complex education issues can be reduced to relative absolutes is born of ignorance. It shows of a lack of understand of the complex and complicated work we do.

When educators take a side without fully explaining the nuances education we reinforce the belief that what we do is simple, straightforward, and can be reduced to simple good or bad choices. We know that isn’t true. Rather than seeing discussions about education issues as battles to be won, we’ll do better to see them as opportunities to inform and educate. We need to help others see the muddy waters we work in so they can more fully appreciate the challenges inherent in the work that we do.


Early Tuesday March 25th, 2014 it was reported that Alberta students would be required to memorize their multiplication tables. A few hours later, when Ontario Education minister Liz Sandals walked into a media scrum at Queen’s Park, she knew what was coming. Reporters wanted to know if Ontario’s Ministry of Education would make a similar change in their approach to teaching math. Would the minister reverse her position that she wouldn’t change the curriculum in response to public pressure.

Adrian Morrow, who covers Queen’s Park for The Globe and Mail, tweeted that Sandals announced a change in policy by saying that Ontario teachers “…need to make kids memorise (sic) multiplication tables…”.

He confirmed the change in education policy in a second tweet, calling it a significant “flip-flop” for Sandals, as Ontario’s math curriculum doesn’t require this.

A later story in The Globe and Mail softened the minister’s reported stance (from “memorize” to “learn” multiplication tables) but restated that the minister was “departing from her province’s curriculum guidelines” on math.

None of the other major media outlets covered this significant development. The only other mention of it was a column in The National Post which accepted the original Globe and Mail story at face value.

The minister and her staff, however, maintain that there has been no policy change. Lauren Ramey, the minister’s press secretary, insists that the minister said “nothing new” about math and it is business as usual.

Ramey later confirmed that the minister’s comments don’t signal any policy change and provided a transcript of the minister’s exchange with reporters to back that up.



Media: Alberta has apparently gone back to forcing kids to memorize multiplication tables. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Minister: What I have been saying all along is that what we expect in our schools is a balanced approach to math. That means that absolutely you need to learn your basic math facts and you need to learn how to do problem solving. You need to understand. So when it comes to multiplication tables which is what everyone keeps talking about, I expect two things. I expect kids to understand how to figure it out. So to understand how you figure it out. I also expect them to know the answer. That’s actually a great homework assignment is, ‘learn  your multiplication tables’. And the provincial curriculum already says for example in grade 3, that students should know their multiplication tables up to 7×7.

Media: Well they have to figure it out up to 7×7, that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to memorize it.

Minister: But if anyone has been listening to what I’ve been saying, is that we expect a balance approach and we expect kids to know their basic math facts. That’s part of the balanced curriculum.

Media: So teachers should know this?

Minister: I have said this over and over and over. Like about a thousand times. So let me have one more go at it. What we expect is a balanced approach to the teaching of math. And that is we expect kids to understand, we expect kids to know their basic math facts, and we expect kids to take that understanding and that knowledge and use them together to be able to solve problems.

Media:  I had to learn up to 12×12

Minister: But not in grade 3. So if you look at the grade 4 curriculum it pushes the envelope, the grade 5 curriculum is pushes the envelope. I’m not sure whether it’s grade 5 or 6 if you get up to 12×12. But in grade 3, it’s 7×7. And you go to grade 4 and it’s a bit further.


In that reported exchange the minister repeatedly said that she expects a balanced approach to math. She said that students need to learn their basic math facts and to do problem solving. She didn’t say anywhere that Ontario students need to “memorise” their multiplication tables. It’s a significantly different message from the one reported by The Globe and Mail.

All of which begs the question: What did the minister really say?

Screenshot (1)

Like most jurisdictions Ontario has an extensive, systematic curriculum review process. Curriculum is updated on a seven-year cycle designed to ensure that students are learning the required skills and knowledge with the most proven effective methods. The process requires consultation with:

  • Focus groups
  • Subject experts
  • Minister’s Advisory Council on Special Education
  • Faculties of Education
  • Employers
  • Parents
  • Students
  • Universities, colleges
  • Other branches of the Ministry of Education
  • Other ministries
  • NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations).

This input leads to recommended revisions which writing teams then use to revise the curriculum. When completed the revised curriculum is passed along for further consultation, then fact checked and published.

The process takes two years, and is an attempt to include as much input as possible. But you can’t make everyone happy, all the time, no matter how hard you try. Public education in Ontario tries to be everything to all people. Since over 90% of Ontario students attend public schools, a staggering number, public schools seems to be doing a terrific job. But when you are serving this many families, someone will always be displeased with something.

In 2010 Ontario released a revised version of its Health and Physical Education curriculum, designed by experts in the field in accordance with input from the various stakeholders. Part of the revision was a new sex education curriculum which conservative religious groups opposed almost immediately. In protest, they threatened to withdraw their children from public schools, and then premier Dalton McGuinty, afraid of the political fallout, withdrew the new sex education curriculum. Consequently, the current sex education curriculum is the same one written in the 1990′s, and is terribly outdated.

The curriculum review process was designed to prevent these kind of problems. The consultative framework ensures that the revised curriculum reflects both the best educational practices at the time and the recommendations of the stakeholders. By pandering to a vocal minority the government subverted that process and as a result our students receive a very outdated education.

Last year was the end of the seven-year curriculum review cycle in Ontario. In 2014 a new cycle begins and first up for revision is K-12 Mathematics, currently one of the most politically loaded topics in education.

Earlier this week the minister informed the mainstream media, via email, that the math curriculum review is”underway”. This isn’t normal practice. Lauren Ramey, Press Secretary to Liz Sandals, confirmed that “research” has begun, but was unwilling to commit to how far along the process is.

Today Education Minister Liz Sandals, said that Ontario students should “learn your multiplication tables” setting off speculation that the minister was reversing her position and “shaking up the curriculum“. I’m sure the minister knows that the current curriculum doesn’t require students to learn their multiplication tables, and we won’t see a revised curriculum for at least two years. Minister Sandals is playing politics with curriculum just as McGuinty did in 2010.

Just as before we have vocal groups agitating about curriculum and demanding change. “Back to basics” advocates want rote learning of math facts, teaching of algorithms and less discovery math. Minister Sandals is appeasing them by endorsing rote learning and announcing an already scheduled curriculum review to give the illusion of action.The minister is indicating, before the math review has started, a willingness to listen to special interest group demands about curriculum.

We’ve seen this before, and the results weren’t good. Appeasing special interest groups is a never-ending game of wack-a-mole. As soon as you meet one set of demands another group pops up demanding something contradictory. Real leadership is doing the right thing no matter the political cost.

A systematic consultation process with broad-based input is effective. Politicians need to let stakeholders and curriculum experts do their job. Our students’ education is too important to be impacted by something as trivial as politics.


Google “Liz Sandals Twitter” and you’ll notice two things. First, the Ontario Minister of Education isn’t on Twitter. Second, one of the top search results is a blog post I wrote about Liz Sandals not being on Twitter. The minister has provided the perfect illustration of one reason educators can no longer ignore social media.

The Minister’s decision to not use Twitter has significant consequences: she’s lost control of her digital footprint. If an Ontarian wants to connect with the minister on Twitter and “Googles” her, they wont find information about her latest initiative, her “talking points” or even pictures of her at a press conference but instead a vaguely critical blog post by me.

Minister Sandals, like many educators who are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with social media, assumes the safest strategy is to simply ignore it. If they don’t use social media they won’t have a digital footprint and so it won’t affect them. The opposite is in fact true.

I first noticed students Googling me about seven years ago. I’ve always tried to integrate technology into my classroom learning, but at that time I didn’t have much of an ‘online presence’. My students weren’t impressed by this. The lack of information wasn’t reassuring to them, in fact quite the opposite. Anyone they knew of worth had an online presence. If I didn’t, what did that say about me? I decided then that I needed to do take control of my digital footprint before someone else did.

What’s online is increasingly what matters. When someone wants to learn about us (students, parents, colleagues, principals, etc.) they will, more often than not, start with an online search. And just as with my students, a lack of information will not be reassuring. This is just as true for school boards, schools and other educational organizations.

The Second Reason:

A principal I know sent a letter to parents about behavior which was then posted on social media. The letter attracted some negative attention and comments from parents and the community (e.g. “when I was kid we didn’t have so many rules”). Rather than addressing the matter online the principal chose to ignore it and missed an opportunity to engage with the community about  the issue. They thought that if ignored the problem would go away. It didn’t. The discussion continued without the school’s involvement and resulted in negative comments, damaged the school’s reputation in the community and brought questions from other parents.

This small example is writ large many times every day. There are thousands of conversations about education, children, teachers and learning every hour and they increasingly happen on social media. Educators have an opportunity to enter these discussions, express their unique points of view and influence public discussion about education. If they choose not to these discussions don’t go away, they simply continue with a vital voice missing.

Over the last ten days I’ve twice been cautioned not to blog or tweet about something. When I get over my amusement that someone thinks a tweet or a blog post matter so much that someone thinks they need to “censor” me, I have to shake my head. Those asking just don’t get it.

The online world is growing exponentially, with or without educators. Choosing to ignore it doesn’t protect us, it merely ensure that our perspective won’t be heard. Educators owe it to themselves and their students to engage in the online world. Pretending it doesn’t exist only makes things worse.


“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”
― Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

In his fantastic book, “The Courage to Teach“, Parker J Palmer explains and explores his belief that good teaching isn’t really about what you do, but rather who you are. He believes that teaching is really about connections that teachers create between themselves and students, and that teaching techniques can only be effective if they fit the context of those relationships.

As Palmer explains in the book’s introduction:

Good teaching takes myriad forms but good teachers share one trait: they are authentically present in the classroom, in community with their students and their subject. They possess “a capacity for connectedness” and are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, helping their students weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts — the place where intellect, emotion, spirit, and will converge in the human self — supported by the community that emerges among us when we choose to live authentic lives.

I imagine that experienced teachers nod their heads while reading this. Even if they’ve never considered it before they know it’s true. We see it when a class transforms from a pleasant helpful group of students to a horrible, nasty mob simply because a supply teacher arrives. It happens when I merely walk to the back of my classroom so a student teacher can present a lesson. These other teachers aren’t me and aren’t connected with the class the way I am.

This doesn’t happen by magic. I spend many days planting the seeds of these connections, and every day thereafter cultivating and maintaining them. I love the term “classroom culture” because my science nerd brain immediately thinks of the kind of the culture found in a lab to grow cells. It’s a useful metaphor, because like growing cells, the “complex web of connections” is organic and it grows and develops as the school year progresses. And just like a cell culture if it isn’t maintained under the right conditions it dies.

This view of teaching makes Educrats uncomfortable. It seems too “touchy feely” and not the straight-line, industrial model of education they prefer. They view a classroom as more like a factory, or a machine with inputs and outputs that can be manipulated to maximize efficiency. They believe that if we determine the most effective teaching methods and get teachers to do that, then schools and education improve. But this approach shows a shocking ignorance of how learning in a classroom really works.

The potential success of any particular teaching strategy is largely contingent on the relationship teachers have with their students, and each one of those is different and changes constantly. It’s why we can never be definitive about teaching. It always depends on who we’re talking about and whether or not things have changed.

The use of “best practices” to mandate changes in teaching practice completely disregards this essential truth of teaching. A few years ago a principal told me I had to put up anchor charts in my classroom. When I asked why I was told that a superintendent was coming and he expected to see anchor charts. It wasn’t an option.

This is the worst kind of “classroom engineering”. It has very little to do with actually improving student learning. The mandates come from on high, are passed down the line, and they change as often as the seasons. We are currently in the thrall of “success criteria”, but before that it was “bump it up” boards and before that student generated rubrics and before that…well, you get the picture. With each there was an administrator with a clip board spending a few minutes in a classroom, checking off their list and moving on.

The presumption that someone in a ministry office miles and miles away knows best, someone whose never met me, never been in my classroom or met my students, but thinks they know what I need to do to improve the learning in my classroom seems bizarreIt ignores the unique nature of every classroom and every student.

If Educrats are truly interested in improving education I recommend they try something radical and ask teachers.  They are the experts in their classrooms and know what will work for them and their students. They deserve to be listened to, not talked down to.


Interesting data from Media Smarts, “Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy”, from a classroom-based survey of 5,436 students in grades 4 through 11, in every province and territory that examined the role of networked technologies in young people’s lives. The results of the survey are displayed in this infographic:

Young Canadiana Life Online

Some results that jumped out at me:

There’s a significant digital divide present in Canadian classrooms:

The reported numbers of students with online access are much higher than my grade 4/5 class. My “start of school” straw poll indicated less than 50% of the class had no internet connection at home. That’s significantly less than the +70% Media Smarts survey suggests is average.

Media Smarts’ numbers are averages, not maximums. For every class, like mine, with less than 50% of students online there is another class at or near 100% connected. This gap has significant implications for our public education system.

How you can teach and learn with 100% online is vastly different from that strategies available with less than 50%. Flipping the Class simply isn’t viable for classrooms and schools like ours. Last year I tried to use Edmodo but ended up having to abandon it because not enough students could access the site at home on a nightly basis. Some of my students will access the internet at the public library, but that takes a 30 minute walk downtown and it’s not something grade 4 and 5 students can do every day.

Media Smarts’ numbers suggests that about 27% of the students in my class should have their own cell phone. My class is about half of that and only one of those is a smart phone with internet access. Trying to implement a strategy like BYOD is almost impossible in our classroom.

Online Safety:

89% of students agree with the statement “I know I can protect myself online”. Students understand that, just as in ‘real life”, there are risks to being online but they still feel reasonably safe. This runs counter to much of the adult generated hysteria about the online world being unsafe for students (e.g. cyberbullying, sexting, sexual predators, etc.). We know there are dangers in our real world but we don’t, in response, keep our students at home, we teach them how to manage that risk. Students feel pretty confident in their ability to do that.

Social Media:

About a third of students under-12 use social media, even though major social media sites (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) require students to be at least thirteen years old. Most teachers know, anecdotally, that social media use is happening at a younger and younger age. It’s common for seven and eight year olds to be on Facebook and many toddlers regularly use YouTube. Our efforts to educate children about social media needs to be starting at a much younger age and needs to be both at home and in schools. If we wait until students are in high school…it’s too late.

Tech Obsessed Students?

94% of students choose to go offline for many activities and about 30% worry that they’re online too much. Maybe students aren’t the tech obsessed robots some think they are?


On a recent day, when neighbouring school boards closed schools because of cold weather, Southwest Cincinnati schools opened earlier and stayed open later. In fact, the school day was about 4 hours longer than normal.

Why? As  a service to parents and families who had to go to work and had a much longer morning and evening commute due to the weather conditions.

Lots of unknowns here:

  • What about the safety of school staff who have to travel in and open the schools?
  • Were staff compensated for the extra hours?
  • Is it considered a regular school day or simply a day when the school is “babysitting” the students. Based on the video it looks like a normal school day.
  • What about the students who don’t attend? Is that an absence?

Perhaps the biggest question is: What is the responsibility of schools to parents and families? In areas where schools are a “safe haven” for students should they be open when students needs them most?

You can read about a different approach to snow days in this post.


There’s no more delicious feeling than waking up on a cold wintry morning, getting ready for school and then hearing that it’s a snow day. It’s like finding money in your pocket.

The decision to close school due to weather is often controversial. Schools must balance the safety of students and staff with their responsibility to families and the inconvenience caused when parents suddenly realize there’s no school, but they must still go to work. It’s a no win situation where someone will be upset no matter the decision.

Several Ontario school boards recently discovered this to their chagrin when they decided not to close schools on a particularly cold day. Frustrated students took to social media to express their frustration resulting in several suspensions and lots of discussion. School board officials may be interested to hear that a new initiative using digital technology may make snow days a thing of the past.

Schools in Arkansas and Pennsylvania are piloting programs that replace inclement weather days with “cyber days”. On days when schools are closed due to inclement weather, teachers send or post assignments to students who complete and return them for evaluation later that day.

The advantages are obvious. No more last days of learning due to bad weather and schools can act to protect the safety of students and staff while maintaining an academic program.

There are a couple of obvious caveats:

  • Successful “cyber days” require students to have technology at home which is a significant issue for students from low-income families. The US pilot schools are private Catholic schools, suggesting more affluent parents and a greater probability that students have their own technology. The Pennsylvania schools provide all students with Chromebooks. If “cyber days” are going to become more widespread we’ll either have to wait until the digital divide is eliminated or schools will need to shift away from BYOD policies and start providing personal technology for students.
  • “Cyber days” are more useful for secondary students than elementary. Elementary students need adult supervision on “cyber days”, meaning parents are still inconvenienced. The job of parents might even be more difficult on a “cyber day”. They are now tasked with ensuring school work is done rather than sending the kids outside to build a snow fort.

The greatest danger of “cyber days” however, is the potential devaluation of how students and parents come to see school-based learning. “Cyber days” reduce academic learning to something that can be sent over the internet and completed at home in isolation. Educators need to be aware of this and ensure that parents understand that school-based learning is much more than the assignment downloaded on a “cyber day”.

Such work should never match the real interactive learning that happens every day in a classroom. School-based learning shouldn’t be “cyber days” work completed at school, but rather learning that is rich, engaging and meaningful. The kind of learning that students would happily trudge through a blizzard to get to.



I like traveling. I enjoy the journey as much as the destination, and my favorite way to travel is to walk. Walking connects me to the natural environment and helps me feel grounded. When walking I experience for myself how cold or hot it is, how far I’m traveling, and I understand how steep a hill is in a way I can’t when I’m driving. When waking isn’t always practical I like to use public transit when I can. Trains and buses give me a feeling of freedom and independence, that I’m not reliant on cars.

I was recently riding a train into the city and noticed that the upper floors of passenger cars on commuter trains are designated Quiet Zones. Passengers riding in a Quiet Zone are expected to keep any noise “low and brief” by keeping conversations short and quiet, muting electronics and keeping headphone volume low.

Quiet areas on trains are becoming increasingly popular on trains around the world. Virgin Trains in the UK have quiet zones, as do trains in “New Jersey, in Sweden and in France” where they are called “Zen Zones”. Amtrak trains in the US have “Quiet Cars” to provide “a peaceful, quiet atmosphere for passengers who want to work or rest without distraction”. It seems that as technology and devices are increasingly intruding into every area of our lives, people are looking for a space where they can take a break. Why wouldn’t the same also apply to our schools and students?

Thanks to the writings of Susan Cain we are now more aware than ever of the different needs of the introverts in our schools. A student’s need for quiet isn’t something that’s static, but varies. A student may be introverted in one group, but not in another. Stress in one area of their life may cause them to need some quiet time for reflection, but not after the stress has passed. We have students who find the intense social interaction of school exhausting. What can we do to help those students?

We can start by establishing Quiet Zones in schools and classrooms. Schools should provide a quiet, supervised space, where any student who wishes can sit quietly and eat or read. The expectations would be well established, and students who don’t respect the needs of others for a quiet space would be returned to the regular eating area. I predict that many teachers would volunteer to supervise a quiet lunch room as part of their duty.

We can also extend Quiet Zones to classrooms. At the back of my classroom is a table designated as a “quiet work table”. This table is available for anyone to use if they need a quiet place to work. If they aren’t feeling great, or their group is just too noisy, they can choose to use it. It’s something students self monitor and don’t need to ask permission to use. Students who go to the table but don’t work quietly are asked to return to their regular seat.

A “quiet table” in a noisy classroom is rather like a smoking section in a restaurant. I understand that the noise doesn’t stop when it gets to the table (oh, for the ‘cone of silence’!!) Ideally I’d prefer a room where students could go and work quietly if needed. Putting a table in the hallway or some other quiet corner of the school is also a possibility, but obviously supervision and safety is a concern. At the very least, the “Quiet Work Table” shows students that if they need quiet, that’s acknowledged and addressed in some small way.

Not too long ago, students with learning exceptionalities had their needs ignored in ways that we never would today. We’re more enlightened and recognize that we need to modify our program and learning environment to make sure all students are successful. Don’t students who need a quiet space to recharge deserve the same consideration?

When commuter trains are more effective at meeting the need of their customers, than schools are of taking care of the learning needs of their students it should give us pause for thought. Quiet Zones in schools and classrooms are an easy way to help meet a need that all students have at one time or another. The need to be able to take a break from the noise and pressure of social interaction and recharge.

As the winner of the Kneeshaw Prize, I know about awards :)

I’m somewhat late to the discussion about the value of awards and honour roll kicked off by a Calgary school’s decision to do away with them, and the subsequent public reaction. My hope is to be fashionably late :)

Like many educators I too have concerns about the place that awards and an “honour roll” have in a modern school system that seeks to provide equity and value the gifts of every student.

Last June I attended my son’s high school graduation ceremony, and most of the two and half hours was devoted to presenting awards to a small group of high achievers. I squirmed as each graduate received their diploma and then had their ‘future plans’ announced. I imagined how some students felt about having to sit and watch others receive awards, while their own long-awaited moment in the spotlight was punctuated with a disembodied voice announcing “future…unknown”. What an awful send off from an institution that should be inspiring people as they move into the future.

I understand and agree with the arguments against school awards. I won’t rehash them as they’ve been well articulated here:

What I am wondering, however, is how, when we emphasize that each child is unique, and that we value all their gifts, would be disallow a motivational tool that clearly works for some students?

We use awards in schools for a simple reason, they work for some kids. I’m not disputing that they are often used to create inequity, and can be unhealthy. But does that really mean we should discard them altogether? That’s not the approach we apply in other situations. We don’t prevent students from using something helpful in class just because it isn’t helpful for everyone.

My own academic career was somewhat transformed somewhat by an award. I was barely paying attention to the final assembly at St Stephen’s primary school in Burnley, Lancashire. Slouching at the back of the hall in my school uniform, I had no idea that awards were being handed out. My mental fog was pierced by the announcement of my name, and I was shocked to discover I’d been given the Kneeshaw Prize for academic excellence, the school’s most prestigious award.

The award transformed how I saw myself. I understood that others saw me as someone who could do well at school. It was an external confirmation I hadn’t got anywhere else. That’s the transformative power of awards, and in our rush to prevent harm we are throwing it away.

While I don’t endorse the way awards are commonly used in schools, I can see merit in it. My goal is to flesh out some other ways we might use awards that might allow us to keep the baby while throwing out the dirty bath water.

The Varsity Jacket: One of my most treasured awards was my high school varsity jacket (yes I still have it and it still fits). The jacket was awarded to anyone who met the previously agreed upon criteria. Teachers could set a reasonable set of criteria for their course, or class, and any student who meets the criteria gets the award. If everyone gets the award, so be it. This allows more students to be recognized for their excellence.

One For All: Every student must receive one award, but can only receive one. The awards are all announced in the same way, as each student is called to the stage as part of a year-end celebration. We can keep all the same awards and add others as needed. If no award fits the student, give them a subject award in their best subject. The point is to celebrate something about every student.

Collaboration: If we value collaboration, why not give awards to groups of students. The leadership award goes to the group of students who are leaders. The athletic award goes to the group of the best athletes. And so on. This makes much more sense to me than arbitrarily selecting one person on the basis of some abstract criteria. There’s still just one award presented, but the students have to figure out how to share it fairly. Since they’re collaborative award winners let them figure it out. I like to imagine students helping their peers to excel so they can also qualify for an award.

I acknowledge, that these suggestions all have flaws, but the point of this post is try to break out of the narrow thinking we have about awards. If we can think of them in new ways and reinvent them to emphasize what we want, we can have the benefits of awards without some of the negative consequences.

In a broad public education system nothing is ever completely good or bad, and extreme positions which apply to every student or no students rarely make sense. Awards are things that educators, at some point, invented and promoted, but if they no longer fit our schools they can be reinvented to better match the changing nature of schools and our society.