Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Walking the tight rope of student recognition

Recently there has been much chatter about the impact of extrinsic awards on student learning.  Some of the comments coming from both sides of debate have been animated, to say the least.
This has left me thinking and asking some questions.  I have listed these thoughts and questions and attached some reflections: 
Can extrinsic motivations assist in igniting intrinsic motivation?
I am not sure about this.  I do know that the research regarding the negative effects extrinsic rewards have on intrinsic motivation is fairly unanimous.  I have also recently read an abstract from a meta-analysis by Deci, Koestner, & Ryan (A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 125(6), Nov 1999, 627-668.).  The analysis illustrates the overall effect of rewards on intrinsic motivation is negative.  The study also disaggregates the data to demonstrate that the age of a student and the type of recognition has ranging effects on motivation.

But rather than get in over my head, I have been wondering about my three children and how my wife and I recognise them. 
Hugs, high fives, kisses, affirmations and even the odd stop for an ice cream is a normal occurrence for us.  It’s a way for us to honour and celebrate who they are and effort they give.   Along the way, we might be helping them discover their true passions.   
Should not schools/teachers do the same?    
As principal of a school, honouring the voice of all stakeholders in my community is about deep listening.
It appears that most parents (at least in my community) value their child being recognised for various accomplishments and efforts.  Do we not have an obligation to reconcile this expectation in a thoughtful and careful way?  I think so.
Is there common ground in this debate?  I have always believed that extreme opinions and actions usually leave too many people on the outside looking in.  Do we have to take a “let’s throw the baby out with bath water” approach to this issue?  
One of the core values of our school is developing the whole child: mind, body and spirit.  We celebrate the fact students come to us with a wide array of gifts, challenges and interests.  Our student recognition program serves to animate these values and beliefs.  Here is a sample of the some awards that we celebrate at our school:

  •  Principal’s Inspiration Award.  Recently this award went to a brother and sister who, in the face of losing their father in a tragic accident, provided an enduring message of hope to our school community.
  • Students Recognizing Students Assemblies.  Student run assemblies are held throughout the year and give students an opportunity to give “shout outs” to students who have gone above and beyond (service, excellence, etc. in our community).  A recent example was how one of our students was recognised for being a member of Canada’s Little League World Series team this past summer in Williamsport!
  • Academic Honours Assemblies.  All subject areas and disciplines are honoured.  (E.g. The Arts have as much weight as the Sciences)
  • Service Awards.   Students who give back to their community are recognised in a variety of ways.

Is it perfect? No.  I realize that when we affirm some students, others are left out.  Our challenge is to continue to honour and celebrate the varied talents and blessings of all our students.  Are we doing a good job? I hope so!  Our students and parents are telling us that we are.
Why is the student voice missing from this debate?
To get an anecdotal sense from students on this issue I interviewed 23 randomly selected Gr. 12 students (representing over 20% of the class)  to reflect on our various recognition programs.  I prompted them to think about what motivates them, their feelings when they received or didn’t receive recognition.  With this in mind I asked them the following question:
Do you think the school should continue with its recognition program of students?  Yes or No and explain your answer.
Here are my very unscientific results:
While all students responded with a “yes” the school should continue with its recognition program, some qualified their response.  Here is a snap shot of some those statements:
  •  “I think recognising students is a good thing but it should come with the following disclaimer – it’s not the end of world when one is not recognised.  At the end of the day, what really matters is if you have done your best….”
  • “Recognition is not only good for the students but also good for the parents to know that their child is making a commitment.”
  •   I like the fact that the school tries to accommodate everyone, sports, clubs, academics
  •  “It gives me a sense of pride in myself and my friends”
  •  “We need to celebrate with  and for each other”
  •  “Sometimes, if I’m not recognised it doesn’t make me feel good, but I still think we need to recognize each other”

Words to consider indeed! 
As a parent and as a teacher/principal I understand that our kids bring many different talents and challenges to the table.  
As I walk this tight rope of student recognition I want to embrace the gifts of my students and honour them in as many and creative ways as possible but at the same time want them to understand that what they do, they do for themselves. 
But then again, I’m still figuring it out and invite your feedback!


  1. Well done for having the conversations with the kids!!! I would love to have a roundtable discussion that includes parents, staff, and students (we only included staff and SPC). Student voice is so important.

    I think the thing we need to remember is that we have not made the decision to STOP honouring kids, we have made the decision to honour more students for more areas and more often - daily, weekly, annually. As George Couros said to me, if we honour and recognize each student every day, what would the need be to do this after the year is over? We, as parents and teachers, will always continue to praise in meaningful, relevant and specific ways (see Carol Dweck's Mindset for great research on praise).

    We have ended awards at an elementary school; doing this at a high school would be much more difficult. The main thing is that we continue to reflect and ask the challenging questions about current practices.

    The main question for me is: do awards motivate students as learners. Research and my experience will tell me that the do not. We need to expand our views of what we feel are strengths - people who develop video games, fix the family vehicle, look after their siblings, play a sport outside of school, play in a band outside of school all need to be recognized and helped to bring those strengths into their school experience.

    Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly.. we need to "embrace the gifts of my students and honour them in as many and creative ways as possible but at the same time want them to understand that what they do, they do for themselves."

    The research of Deci and Ryan cannot be ignored. Thank you so much for continuing the conversation!

  2. Thank you Chris! I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on this issue and examine our practice at school.

  3. Two thoughts came to mind mind when I read your post John; and interestingly they are from opposite perspectives.

    First, if we (as educators, parents, or whatever) or honour or recognize students (or anyone else) for that matter we run the risk of our praise losing its meaning. The reason they Olympic medals carry so much significance is because only three people in the world are able to win them. I think the difficulty we face in schools is where to draw that line.

    On the other hand I think its too easy for academics to disregard extrinsic motivation. From a theoretical point of view, I certainly want to encourage my students to become intrinsically motivated. The realities of the situation make it a little more complicated than that. In fact I suspect 99% of teachers are extrinsically motivated to a large extent. How many of them would continue to do their job if they didn't get paid? Look at how the recent contract negotiations within CISVA became the latest staffroom buzz. Does that mean its wrong? Certainly not. But it does show that the students we teach are really no different than us.

    Anyway, those are just a couple of off the cuff thoughts I had as I read your post.