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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Let's Bring More Students to the Awards Table

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the stage at our school's eighth-grade graduation ceremony. I was reflecting on the two years I have had with these students, and how we set out together to do something different with our time in this place we call school. Much of what I was feeling was positive and hopeful.

Hopeful, that is, until the master of ceremonies for the evening came to the podium and announced, "And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: It is now time to recognize the efforts and achievements of our students through the awards segment of our celebration."

For me, this was the moment I had been dreading all evening, the moment I lost sleep over, and the moment on which I fixated during the formal lunch and dance we had enjoyed earlier in the day. Like many awards ceremonies taking place in many school districts across the continent, ours focused on and raised to an obvious level of honor and prestige a narrow band of academic achievement across specific disciplines.

Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that academic development is unimportant, or that success in discipline-based thinking should not be celebrated. It's just that for the past two years, working with a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, we began to explore how our experience of school could be transformed by focusing on things like collaborative and cooperative interactions, critical thinking, creativity, and alternative forms of communication.

By recognizing visual arts, drama, dance, music, and media arts as legitimate forms of literacy, we have begun to combine traditional, discipline-based boundaries and explore questions, ideas, and problems that are at the core of living in the 21st century.

And yet, at the end of the day, those that were honored at our eighth-grade graduation ceremony were those students who received the highest individual marks in each of the traditional academic subject areas.

I realize that traditional schooling practices are often so firmly entrenched in our collective minds that they often become habits that remain, to a large extent, unquestioned. On our staff, for example, discussions around awards tend to concentrate on who is going to win the honors in each eighth-grade class and which teacher will be responsible for getting the plaque engraving done.

I also realize that the change in thinking necessary to inspire a change in practice requires a movement of the critical mass -- and that is always slow. But I'm beginning to frame some questions and ideas so my September conversations with my colleagues might help us move the conversation forward.

Here are my main contentions: First, the traditional honors and kudos that are part of our end-of-the-year awards ceremonies tend to be disconnected with the set of skills, attitudes, and achievements we hold to be important for the 21st century.

Second, if we really want to promote things like collaborative team work, risk taking, ongoing learning, creativity, and critical problem solving, and if we really want our student and parent communities to begin to take these seriously, we need to make sure these goals are provided with honored places at our awards tables. In my own local district, I don't see this happening in any serious way.

Let me get the wheels turning a little with a few possibilities: I can imagine, for example, an award given to the team of students who designed a creative and effective solution to a community-based problem.

What about an award that recognized a students' ability (and willingness) to consistently see situations or problems from another perspective? Here's a provocative one: an award that calls to the podium the student willing to risk short-term academic achievement for long-term learning.

There are countless possibilities that could emerge from serious discussion about our current practice around awards.

Perhaps I don't have to wait until September to get the conversation going! Perhaps you have been doing some parallel thinking. You may agree or disagree with what I've said. Maybe your school has already started down this path. What have the results been like? Finally, you may have ideas for new award categories. Let's run with the idea and see where it takes us!

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
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Michael Derman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A great starting point for a discussion. The danger, of course, is that many of these awards will be base on judgment calls, which take longer to make and more often run afoul of overly protective parents. In general, the question of how to assess "21st Century Skills" (a buzzword with multiple meanings) is one that has not yet, to my knowledge, been adequately discussed. I would be interesting in being directed to any such discussion.

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your initial response. I agree that 21st century skills is a bit of a buzzword...and I'm not even sure that what we collect under this rubric are all exclusive to the 21st century. We often connect the 21st century with technology and technological innovation.

Interesting note about judgement calls and awards. I think that there is a certain degree of subjectivity inherent in current assessment and evaluation practices--despite the use of rubrics and rating scales. The challenge will be to come up with fair, accessible and meaningful tools so that the judgments that we make about students in the new award schema are seen as legitimate.

I look forward to further comments and discussion. Thanks for starting it off!

Stephen

Cynthia Nagrath's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kudos to you for this forward-thinking suggestion!

I disagree with the previous reader's assessment -- I'm sure most parents would agree with your suggestion as approximately 90% or more sit in the audience knowing their child will never receive an award.

Schools, for the most part, traditionally award students from the blessed-end of the gene pool -- recognizing those with high levels of intelligence (i.e. top grades), artistic ability, musical ability and athletic ability. While many of these students who have been endowed with these natural talents may also work hard and demonstrate other admirable traits, many don't have to work that hard to get the A in math, sketch a beautiful portrait, hit all the right notes, or throw a winning pass.

Students who have worked very hard to achieve a B, or who have practiced consistently to play an instrument, or who have shown a high level of interest, curiosity and dedication to what they are doing should be equally, if not more, honored than those who on the surface may be more successful, but did not have to work as hard.

And yes, skills such as collaboration, team work, and creative thinking should be honored at the awards ceremonies so that all students are inspired and challenged to achieve their unique potential -- not just the blessed few!

Kirsten Olson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stephen, What a wonderful post and so much what I have felt through the years, in my research and in my own work as a teacher and writer. How "bipolar" of us to say that we recognize and celebrate all kinds of learners and achievement in our day to day lives in schools, and then persist with this very traditional, quite punishing and old-fashioned awards ceremony. (Often, I think, parents are whom we are trying to please with these kinds of symbols?) I couldn't agree more that these rituals tend to reify and recognize rather narrowly defined achievements, and reinforce the message that what we really care about is only two kinds of intelligences. Thank you for these suggestions. I just returned from a visit to Sweden, where the emphasis on individual achievement in our schools is quite unimaginable to educators there. There are no awards ceremonies of this type at most of the high schools and middle schools I visited.

Please keep blogging about this?

Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded By School (2009)

George Peternel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great start to an important conversation. What attributes do we want to recognize and honor at the end of each school year?

I'll suggest that high academic marks are a better criteria than Mr. Hurley perceives them to be. Traditionally, high marks indicate effort more than any other trait. Not God-given intelligence or other so-called natural talents. Few students get high marks for just being gifted ... many get high marks for being bright and hard-working. Both. And being hard-working is a trait that never goes out of fashion.

I'm less sure, however, whether or not intellectual curiosity, a trait that I consider very important for the 21st century, is adequately reflected by the grades that are given to students. Test scores alone are poor measures of intellectual curiosity. I suggest that intellectual curiosity be asssessed and rewarded.

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