Rewarding merit not participation

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Fostering fragility among our children by awarding the simple act of taking part

In terms of students and the issue of participation in activities, most parents would be familiar with the ‘player of the match’ award being granted on a weekly, rotating basis to a different person within a sporting team.

This is the case even if the player did absolutely nothing to merit being denoted the ‘player of the match’.

I have seen the award going to a child who actually sat down throughout the entire game. Similarly, end-of-year awards nights ‘recognise’ a growing number of students, including those who have simply attended school.

participation.Indian Link

Attendance is, of course, crucial to being exposed to learning opportunities and is far preferable to the alternative.

Surely, however, turning up to school is a basic expectation, and at least in part, for most families, effected by adults. If expectations are so low, then how can true participation be recognised?

In this sense, ‘true participation’ may take the form of the student who helps another student, distracted by home stresses, to keep up with schoolwork.

Or the student who helps place chairs on desks at the end of a school day, or remove them from desks at the start, because a contribution matters to them.

participation.Indian Link

One of the clear issues here is the message an award or recognition gives when the person being granted the award has done nothing of particular merit.

The effect of rewarding or acknowledging participation alone is to externalise very low levels of motivation at best.

Should we not expect students to participate in activities? Should students not be encouraged to try something without needing a piece of paper to say that they actually joined in?

participation.Indian Link

In schools, many activities for which ‘participation’ is awarded are mandatory. Involvement in various academic competitions is in many schools non-discretionary. The students do not have the choice not to participate.

To then reward ‘participation’ through giving participation certificates or ‘awards’ is tantamount to an exercise in self-congratulation. The students are effectively being ‘recognised’ for having not rebelled.

But even where it is not mandatory, should a student be recognised simply for entry into a competition? In doing so, are we devaluing actual effort? What if the child answered very few questions, or entered only because they thought they ‘had to’ in order to please their parents?

participation.Indian Link

A second issue with participation certificates relates to the purpose of participation. What motivates a student to join something? More broadly, why do people do what they do? What motivates performance?

Recognition of the motivators and the personal goals of participants is much more likely to lead to an opportunity for meaningful recognition beyond mere participation.

This is important because participation is the entry, but goal setting is the path through that motivates achievement.

participation.Indian Link

Of course students often do participate in activities grudgingly, only to find that they enjoyed the activity more than they thought they would, learnt something new and made friends with people they did not know.

These are crucial elements to participation – indeed elements that are their own reward and for which a person needs no certificate.

In this case, the experience is its own reward, and to offer a participation certificate is to point attention to something of far less value (and external) than the learning the student has already gained from the experience of joining in, and attempting something that they resisted.

Why distract the student and point attention to the least valuable part of the experience?

A further issue with respect to rewarding participation is the external affirmation that these awards give, in a life lived through ‘what I do’ not ‘who I am’ or ‘what I learnt’.

In a society dominated by selfies, the temptation to feed an externalisation of the self is surely not desirable.

It certainly will not add to the student’s resilience or capacity to cope with defeat, loss or change.

Questioning the recognition of participation is important if we are to raise critical thinking in students.

Our expectations should go beyond a walk between classrooms. It should engage the important stuff of learning and achievement.