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Recognition vs. Reward

November 1, 2013

This week, in Calgary, there has been a great deal of media coverage of a school within the Calgary Catholic school system. St. Basil’s Junior High school eliminated academic awards for all students. Here is a link to the story in the Calgary Herald: I felt this was a good topic for this week’s blog for a number of reasons. I know it is a contentious issue but, as a functioning society, we should not shy away from contentious and sometimes uncomfortable discussions.

My first thought about this issue revolves around the comparison between academics and sports. One is meant to be a competition where one team or individual wins and one does not. The other, is meant to be an environment where people learn. School should not be a competition. As a teacher, I do not establish systems in my classroom where students are pitted against each other in the hopes one will emerge victorious. On the contrary, I want my classroom to be an environment where students collaborate and create networks to solve problems. I encourage my students to work diligently. If they fail it is not a setback, rather it is an opportunity for them to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes again – and they can try again, multiple times. Classrooms should not be environments where students are pitted against each other. My question to parents advocating this type of environment would be: are your homes filled with competition? Do you constantly compare your children to one another and reward the best child? Or, do you attempt to foster effective communication and teamwork to ensure things run smoothly?

My second thought is in regards to evidence. There is an immense body of academic research which suggests the use of academic “carrots” does nothing to motivate students. In fact, the vast amount of research indicates that reward systems actually have the opposite impact. Students who are high achievers and relish success for success sake do not require rewards to reinforce their behaviour. Conversely, students who are not high achievers and who struggle, are negatively impacted by academic reward systems. The response to this in the mainstream media and on social media is to suggest that by doing away with reward systems we are in fact promoting mediocrity in our systems. People suggest the real world is about reward and competition and we mus reward hard work. However, I would be willing to bet if you asked these same people whether they would employ someone who is intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated, they will always go for the person who has internal motivation. If this is the case, why then should schools provide extrinsic motivation to their students when the research overwhelmingly suggests it does not benefit any of the students.

My final comment is in relation to a blog post I wrote earlier this year. I asked my social networks to tell me what they thought excellent schools should look like. I received many responses from teachers, administrators, and parents. The overwhelming response was they wanted schools to promote leadership, collaboration, communication, and create an environment of safety. In the over 50 responses I received, no where did anyone say they wanted a school which pitted students against each other in an environment of academic competition.

I realize students enjoy receiving recognition and I am a supporter of recognition. However, I am not a supporter of academic competition. Recognizing students for their individual efforts and achievements is important. But this can be done in such a way so as to foster an environment built on mutual success. I would appreciate your thoughts and feedback and would welcome comments to continue this discussion.

Have a wonderful Friday,



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