November 3, 2013

Thinking Through the Awards Debate

Every once in a while something I care a lot about comes up in the media and is massively misrepresented. It often becomes pretty difficult for me to let it go. Last Sunday's Calgary Herald article on St. Basil's School moving away from traditional award ceremonies allowed one voice to dominate the conversation. No perspective was added from the teaching staff or students attending the school, and the substantial research in support of the school's shift away from honour roll ceremonies was virtually ignored. Most regrettably, the over-simplification of a complex issue resulted in many public contributions to the conversation that were reactionary and ill-informed. The primary arguments in favour of an honour roll seemed to be that it provides recognition for hardworking students, as well as motivation for them to do great work. Both perspectives deserve to be thoughtfully examined.

Research suggests that when honour roll certificates are awarded, students will tend to adjust their approach to learning in order to achieve that required 80% or 85%. Far from this being desirable however, having students focus on attaining a standard percentage-based outcome each semester is fundamentally problematic.  Quantified assessment of student understanding requires arbitrary judgements as to what is a "unit," what is "worth" one mark, and what is worth five. These judgements often do not even have an explicit rationale beyond: "I am marking out of five, this is the best so it gets five, this is average so it gets three." (Biggs & Tang, 2011) Multiple choice tests out of 100 are inevitably preferred for percentage-based grading because answers can only be right or wrong, questions can be equally weighted, and no one has to deal with the difficulty of quantifying a conversation. Then, because students inevitably focus on what is being assessed (or rewarded), their emphasis shifts to recall of the isolated details they will soon forget but that will help them pass the test with as many marks as possible.

I have to share a conversation I overheard last week in which two students were discussing a recent assignment...

Student A: "What did you get?"
Student B: "23/29. What'd you get?"
Student A: "25."
Student B: "Man, I don't even know what I did wrong."
Student A: "I got an extra mark for my figures 'cause I labeled them."
Student B: "I didn't even know we had to label figures. Well that sucks cause I guess I'm two labeled figures away from an 80%."

I had to interrupt them eventually just to ask what subject they were talking about. Upon learning that it was a science lab, I was curious about their research, the outcome of the experiment, what they had discovered, and what questions they had. I asked whether they didn't think it a bit odd that their conversation hadn't revolved around what they were learning and one student started to answer "yeah but that's not the point..." before catching himself.

The insistence that the purpose of learning is the "cookie at the end," is an interesting one. If this is the case, then the presence of the cookie should guarantee good quality work and given that these cookies have been around for a while it shouldn't be too difficult to ascertain whether excellent work is a consistent product of this form of academic recognition. I will happily take this opportunity to associate a few cliche names with the school system's recognition of their early efforts. (via The Creativity Post)

Albert Einstein: slow, lazy and expelled from school
Thomas Edison: too stupid to learn anything
Ludwig Van Beethoven: awkward and hopeless
Bill Gates: university drop-out
Steve Jobs: university drop-out
Fred Astaire: can't act, can't sing
Charles Darwin: rather below the common standard of intellect

Evidently they didn't do it for the honour roll certificate.

The mother quoted in the Herald article (and the many adults who commented below), suggested that without an honour roll, children have "nothing to work toward." I would argue that rather than "nothing," they might in fact have the opportunity to find something much more genuinely worthwhile to work for.

What about the recognition though? Isn't it nice to be recognized for great quality work? Isn't it important for children who work hard to have it acknowledged?

Absolutely! However, as distinguished above, honour roll doesn't recognize exemplary pieces of work, it recognizes an 80% average. I used to get 80% averages because I coloured in title pages and copied glossaries neatly. Honour roll too often recognizes students for knowing and doing what they're told to know and do, or answering a standard number of questions accurately on the test. It is too general, too vague, and too transparent.

I've been a student now for 20 years. I appreciate recognition as much as anybody who is a product of this system and lives in it. I like working hard and inevitably am grateful if someone takes the time to acknowledge my hard work. I am particularly grateful when that acknowledgement specifically identifies something that shows familiarity with the work, or gratitude for its utility which typically is the point.

Recognition? Yes! When anyone does something exceptional we should be confident and intelligent enough to let that brilliant idea, interaction, creation or construction shine. But not by presenting them with some uniform piece of paper that 100 other people received as well. We are not all capable to the same capacity in the same context at the same time. We are not all great athletes, singers, scientists, or artists. I am not any of these. But I am thankful they exist and appreciative of their talents. I genuinely believe that we will only be capable of our best as a society when we are willing to let the best in each of us be the best. There is something in every child we can recognize; if we can't find it, we simply aren't looking hard enough.

A brilliant teacher once said "schools shouldn't model the world as it is, they should model the world as it should be." If we believe that schools should build a community in which students are encouraged to engage intellectually in the investigation of real issues for extended periods, if we believe that failure is part of learning, if we believe that students are not all alike and that schools should teach them how to capitalize on their individual strengths and those of their classmates as they discover who they are, then recognition in the form of honour roll makes absolutely no sense. As I wrote over a year ago, it is always troublesome to witness the living, cultivated detail of deepening understandings occluded in an overly technical and methodological obsession with quantitative outcomes of student work. Children are not flat, anonymous, trainable beings. Neither are they measurable entities, and every time we treat them as such we sell them short. 


  1. Well said, Deirdre... as assessment is a deep conversation and closely linked with honour roll and awards, I, too, get frustrated when we take a deep conversation and turn it into a simple issue with a bold headline. Thanks for taking this to a deeper level.

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback! I keep trying to remember that it's been a tough process wrestling with the whole idea of assessment reform myself the past few years. As much as I have come to care about it and as certain as I am that this shift is the right thing for children and for learning - I can appreciate the other side too and am aware that there are many that might not have had the opportunity to see the value of this shift in action. It's been an important process to keep trying to find ways to make examples visible and multiple perspectives clear in such a complex conversation! So grateful to have educators like yourself to follow in the process! Thank you:-)