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.