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.