Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Prizes, acknowledgements and awards at school (2015 Term 4 Week 9)

Why do we give prizes at the Presentation Events? Actually, the question is broader than that. Why do we give prizes at all?

The fundamental rationale for awarding prizes at an event such as our Graduation Assembly or Presentation Events is to celebrate achievement. As a school that is unabashed about our pursuit of excellence in education, these gatherings are a wonderful opportunity for us to acknowledge, affirm and rejoice in the efforts and achievements of our young people.

It never fails to surprise me that these celebrations somehow become occasions of distress or disgruntlement in the community. Often this is because a particular prize gets awarded to one student and not another. Sometimes it has to do with the perceived emphasis that we give to one sort of achievement over another. This criticism comes from all directions; some believe that we over-emphasise academic achievement, others that we under-emphasise it by placing too much focus on sport or music, and others that we should focus more on effort and diligence. It is not easy to meet everyone's expectations; in addition, no parent is entirely disinterested when making this sort of critique.

My reflection is that we do celebrate achievement in a very wide range of areas. There are prizes for academic achievement and co-curricular achievement. We acknowledge application and effort. We affirm character and leadership and contributions to the community through service and commitment. The various performances on stage and the videos on screen attempt to capture some of the variety of school life.

The receipt of a prize for excellence or achievement, whether it is for Year 10 Science or Year 3 Academic Achievement, does not make a statement about the capacity, the future trajectory, or the value of a student; conversely, the non-receipt of an award does not mean these things either. An award for achievement or excellence is not a label, or a definition, or a designation of the 'haves' and 'have nots'. It is an acknowledgment of performance in a particular context and time frame. 

We are hoping to cultivate a growth mindset in our students, so that they understand that their basic qualities such as intelligence and talent, are not fixed but malleable through effort and application. This is why we make awards for Diligence and Improvement in a range of contexts. The more powerful opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset will not come from anything that I say from the front, but from the conversations that parents will have with their children in the course of daily life. Helping your child to reframe and reflect on their disappointments is an invaluable service that only you can offer to your child.

The Presentation Events are not the only occasion during the course of a school year when students receive encouragement, feedback and affirmation. Positive feedback comes through a wide range of formal and informal channels. I know from direct observation just how committed our staff are to affirming our students' efforts and achievements. 

I also make the observation that our positive culture will be strengthened as we decentralise the expectation that only the high-profile and formal affirmations count. As Principal, I simply do not have enough time in the day to directly affirm every worthwhile achievement in the school community, even if I somehow managed to become aware of them all. Nor is there room for them all in the newsletters or the assemblies or the social media.

I also want to make a more pointed comment about a disturbing tendency in our culture. Our young people need to learn not to be self-centred. The tendency for many young people (and more than a few adults), upon hearing that someone else has won a prize, is to ask 'What about me?' It is a natural response, but it is one that they need to learn to move past. Not everything is about them. It is a beautiful character trait to be able to rejoice in the success of others. I believe our young people and our community will be well-served if their habitual response to the success of others is encouragement, affirmation and celebration.

A related comment is to observe that none of the matters associated with end-of-year prizes and awards has high stakes attached to it. The future of our children will not be significantly shaped by whether or not they got one prize or another - or even if they go through their entire schooling without receiving a prize. The prizes are not meaningless, but they are not ultimately things that really matter in life. You can serve your children well by helping them to see this perspective.