Do awards really motivate students?

Louise Knight

Louise Knight, a previous PYP Coordinator and Language Support teacher with grades 1 to 5

This article encourages PYP educators to reflect on the giving of awards, particularly in relation to the attributes of the learner profile, and how this practice adheres with the philosophy of the PYP curriculum.

The learner profile is a list of attributes that an IB education strives to inculcate in learners. For the IB, a student who embodies these attributes exemplifies a well-rounded individual capable of making a positive contribution to society. While it is widely acknowledged and discussed that different cultures may value a different set of attributes, I have encountered little discussion around my question which relates to the habit of some schools to award certificates to students for behaviours that demonstrate the attributes of the learner profile.

To award certificates is to publicly distinguish some from others and while introducing a competitive element may not be the intention, I would argue that it is implicit in the act. For a programme whose central tenet is collaboration, the turning of its key-stone into a matter for competition seems to be paradoxical. I am unsure of the value of public praise under any circumstances and believe there are many recipients for whom it is a disquieting experience. At least where the award is for achievement of a clear target or criteria, swimming 25 meters for example, subjectivity has no place and there is no reinforcing of a power differential where the powerful patronize the powerless. Are teachers so consistent in their own demonstration of the profile attributes that they are in a position to judge others?

Like many colleagues, I have resorted to a rotation system to ensure that all children receive a certificate at some point in the term. By pretending to children that the system is otherwise dishonest, we are also assuming children are not astute enough to notice our ‘secret’ system. Or, if we accept that they do notice, we are asking them to join us in a strange pretense.

I have taught in two schools where such awards did not exist and those schools lacked nothing in terms of student motivation and behaviour. In schools where such awards were/are used, I have twice used this issue as material for discussion with grade 5 students as part of the discussion writing process. Once the children have overcome their reluctance to be completely honest about how they feel, they invariably arrive at the conclusion that such awards are pointless, and, far from feeling like a celebration, they make for uninspiring assemblies. However, while they know their turn will come, as the whole system has to be ‘fair’, they are still disappointed each time it is not their turn. I offer an analogy: Most teachers, like me, have probably been rejected for a job they applied for, for which they knew they were well qualified. While we know that there could have been 40 applicants equally well qualified and there was only one job, and therefore the rejection was not really a reflection on our own quality as applicants, we still feel momentary disappointment. How much worse would we feel if we were immediately obliged to clap and cheer for the successful candidate, and, how uncomfortable would the successful candidate feel to be paraded before her unsuccessful colleagues? Would we put ourselves through that week after week? There is an assumption that all children enjoy public praise. I have asked them as part of this discussion and many of them actually feel awkward and shy.

As a result of the discussion with students, they have been relieved to either become exempt from the whole process or at least from the elements of the system to which they cannot relate. The immediate lift in the level of trust and respect in the teacher-student relationship was tangible.

One argument posited in favour of such awards is that many parents expect it. I met with the parents of my class who had decided to exempt themselves to explain the thinking behind and the process that led to this decision. The parents were unanimous in their support for their children’s well-argued, thoughtful position.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993/1999) a meta-analysis of the research on rewards and motivation, draws conclusions that might be surprising for many in education. As PYP teachers we want learners to be intrinsically motivated as we know this is the best kind for achievement of potential. Kohn cites plenty of research that supports this. Certificates are a form of extrinsic motivation. Some believe that at worst the awarding of certificates is innocuous, but Kohn argues that they are harmful because they actually detract attention from the opportunity to be intrinsically motivated. The sense of satisfaction that learners can feel in the moment of achievement acknowledged by immediate feedback is devalued by the hope of a certificate which might not be forthcoming. Because awards are given subjectively, there is no clear criteria to the award; it does not serve as a tool for motivation only hope and disappointment.

I would be very interested to hear the views of colleagues on this issue – especially those who have explored the arguments with children and parents, and reflected on it as a school.

Louise has worked with the PYP in schools in Norway, Nigeria, Iraq (including as PYP Coordinator and Language Support) and Indonesia with grades 1 to 5. She believes as PYP teachers it is important that we explore alternative perspectives particularly regarding practices that are implemented without being subject to some scrutiny. 

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17 Responses to Do awards really motivate students?

  1. Fiorella Marquez 22 March 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    Estoy totalmente de acuerdo en que dar premios no son una garantía que los estudiantes aprendan y que ese aprendizaje perdure en el tiempo. Cuando trabajamos conceptos tan abstractos como las actitudes y el Learner Profile, el mejor premio para los niños es al ver evidencias felicitarlos en el momento delante de sus compañeros. “Miren que solidario ha sido José al ayudar a Pedro con esa tarea” ¿Quien más me puede decir una acción solidaria que hayan tenido esta semana? Por otro lado cuando analizamos cuentos con los niños de Kindergarten, solemos calificar a los personajes con Learner Profile y solemos decir que actitudes han tenido en el cuento. Eso es una gran manera de comprender estos conceptos y es increíble lo que estos pequeñitos pueden saber.

  2. Sam Sherratt 22 March 2016 at 11:27 pm #

    Anything that makes the language permeate the culture of the school is probably not a bad thing. We have learner profile postcards… the difference between these and certificates is that they are distributed throughout the community spontaneously and are given to students by teachers, to students by students, to teachers by teachers, to students by parents, to parents by students, to parents by teachers, to teachers by parents etc…

    • Fiorella Marquez 23 March 2016 at 2:18 pm #

      Hi Sam,
      this is a great idea. I would like to know more about how you do it at school.

    • Suzie Davis 9 December 2017 at 1:50 am #

      What do these postcards look like? How are they distributed… in class, slipped into someone’s locker secretly? I was thinking about doing awards then I read this article. I still want to go something and I really like your idea! Please advise! Thanks

  3. Suchi 23 March 2016 at 11:23 am #

    Keeping in mind that the goal of PYP schools is to help and guide students to imbibe the learner profiles and attitudes, public acknowledgement of the demonstration of the learner profile can serve as a reminder or an inspiration to other students to consistently demonstrate these attributes.
    At one school, it was not the teachers role alone to nominate students. Instead, any member of the school community- other teachers, admin, parents and peers would notice other students, parents on campus and even teachers and acknowledge them in assemblies. I think that’s a great way to reduce the subjectivity and teach children that profiles and attitudes cross over to the real world and are not limited to something you may have done only in school.

    • Louise 23 March 2016 at 3:28 pm #

      This approach at least eliminates the power differential.

  4. Jennifer Le Varge 23 March 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    Thanks for your thought-provoking article, Loiuse. At BISS we promote the practice of highlighting the act, not the person. Our focus on the Learner Profile, while it can definitely be improved upon, is a celebration rather than an award, where children can nominate each other and whereby each student is interviewed to make their learning/idea/action visible to the rest of the community, made public to the learning community via an iMovie at shown at assemblies and via the school’s blogging network. I encourage anyone to check out some examples on the blog, http://blogs.biss.com.cn/pypcoordinator/ and look forward to an on-going discussion!

  5. Fiona 23 March 2016 at 1:00 pm #

    Our practice is for each child to get a Principal’s Award each Term or Semester. It is an excellent way to show how children are demonstrating different aspects of the learner profile. Families and friends, including extended familly members as well as students become attuned to IB language. Awards include a short testimonial about the particular action they have taken or area of student achievement. At school assemblies, each class awards (generally two per class) are read out by the Principal. Grade 6 leadership students hand over the award and shake hands. Applause waits for all awardee’s achievements to be heard.Awards are often celebrated afterwards quite spontaneously amongst a child’s cohort, with much back slapping as they make it back their seat. Parents sometimes use this as a way to reinforce at home their excellent choices, eg by it being child’s pick for dinner or special dessert.

    Although you can dismiss this as platitudes and formulaic, there is little that comes close to the central purpose of recognising efforts towards students achieving the learner profile. The reality is that all students demonstrate growth on most if not all aspects every week. We are spoiled for choice but use awards as a way to encourage the community to stop and reflect on particularly high achievement.

    • Louise 23 March 2016 at 3:47 pm #

      Hi Fiona, what you describes is, I would suggest, the formula that most schools use and assume to be positive. I believe that practices that have gone on unquestioned for some time (and this does not only apply to schools) should be examined by a fair representation of the stakeholders – in the light of research, evidence and alternative perspectives. We can at least ask ourselves, ‘are we assuming this practice is as we think it is, or are we basing it on something more substantial?’ Do we want the PYP to become like a society of members who have the terminology and rituals or do we want it to be a framework for real learning.

  6. David Whitehead 23 March 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi Louise,

    it’s always an important part of the action cycle, as well as of course part of the LP we are discussing, that we reflect on our own practice. Having been on staff of a number of PYP schools I’ve seen various approaches and can see the good intentions in each. My early years teaching in Australia led me to go through a mountain of stickers and stamps and leave ticks, smiley faces and messages over student work. Whilst in Germany, I lost that practice completely, as I entered a culture where that wasn’t commonplace. And not a single student seemed to miss them. Furthermore, the LP and Attitudes were living actively in each part of the school. Subsequently, I’ve come to really understand how rewards/ awards can be cultural. Therefore, we can create a culture whereby students are not expecting, desiring or disappointed by receiving or missing out on LP/Attitudes awards. The postcard idea explained by Sam gives much more authenticity to the process and joins the school community in the process. Of course as IB educators, we want to encourage students to further develop these attributes. I very much like your call for authenticity and I’m always wary when one ‘traditional’ teaching habit is replaced by a ‘PYP version’ of the same habit.

    • Fiorella Marquez 23 March 2016 at 2:49 pm #

      Great comment David! I totally agree with you. Here in Peru our parents love rewards . But little by little, thanks PYP philosophy, we are changing that idea.
      I teach in Kindergarten and I introduce each concept through a story.The kids love this classes and by the time the vocabulary is part of their lives.
      Do anybody speaks spanish?

    • Louise 23 March 2016 at 3:27 pm #

      Thank you for your comments David, honest reflection together with the students can be very revealing.

  7. Fiorella Marquez 23 March 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    Do you speak Spanish? You are right we must celebrate the action, not the person.We also celebrate when the adults, teachers, parent, workers give us an evidence about a Learner Profile. Sometimes a kind can say “look the gardener is so caring..our garden is always beautiful”
    I saw you blogs and it is very interesting what you wrote about portafolios.
    Thanks a lot!
    Fiorella

  8. Irene Fenswick 6 April 2016 at 2:25 pm #

    Thank you for your article, Louise. Last week I was talking about it with my nephew and he told me that students care more about points than IB profile. In his class everyone uses it to tease each other and doesn’t take it seriously. I also like the idea with postcards expressed by Sam. I think it prevents subjectivity and engages everyone in the evaluation process.

  9. Fiona Zinn 24 April 2016 at 1:09 am #

    Excellent provocation for thought. As a call for intentionality and authenticity this article prompts us all to suspend our automatic and sometimes inherited habits and truly question our practice. I couldn’t agree more with David Whitebread’s comments. We have to acknowledge that schools are places of culture – children and teachers are constructors of culture – and it is our responsibility to think deeply about the types of cultural values we choose to build, sustain and promote. Thank you for bravely putting these thoughts out here and challenging a pedagogy of complacency!

  10. Linda Camelo 8 November 2017 at 2:00 am #

    From my perspective and experience, IB profile rewards are a good tool to show kids those kind of actions which come naturally from them and that can be placed into an IB attribute. It is a nice way to recognize their iniciatives like helping each other, sharing their knowledge, taking on challenges and hence encourage their partners to act. We promote the understanding of IB attributes through stars, awards in raising flags and certificates for the end of the year.

    Moreover, these awards can be not only for students but also for us teachers. In our school from Bogotá (Colombia) our head master usually rewards teachers with the IB profile then everyone can see how easy is to be caring, open-minded, inquirer, etc, and it is for us a valuable dynamic that show us of what others are able to do and how IB profile is not made of unatttainable atributes.

  11. Poonam Singh 9 May 2018 at 6:35 pm #

    Hi Sam
    It is indeed a wonderful idea and would love to use the strategy to bring the whole community of parents, teachers , students together.Thanks

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