School prize giving season

It is school prize giving season. If you are around teenagers you may have noticed that winning a prize is often greeted with an air of indifference. If one of my children does so, I am momentarily overcome with the frantic joy of hearing my child’s name at the prize giving ceremony, with thoughts like, “Oh my goodness, [name of child] has been noticed, she/he is the best! Perhaps she/he does concentrate in class! I can walk out of here with pride!” When the ceremony is over, the child in question throws the certificate at me in an offhand manner, responding to my pride with something along the lines of, “Yeah [name of teacher] likes me,” or, “It’s only because they tested us on electricity which is easy, I suck at the rest of science”. At first glance this seems like a reversal of how it should be. My vicarious achievement should be less worthy of delight than my child’s actual achievement.

But when you think it through, what would my child’s social future at school be like if she/he whooped with joy at beating others? Pretty bleak I would say. From the perspective of the losers it is bad enough to be shown up as not worthy of the special attention given to winners, but for the winner to then gloat would be intolerable. So sensible winners learn to play it cool, because every normal child is still far more interested in having friends than being the best at anything, and so it should be. They are too connected to the losers not to guard their joy. I squirm when people talk about the New Zealand culture “knocking tall poppies” as if we should be encouraging our children to stand above the crowd. This is all wrong. It is awkward and inappropriate for children to be stars. They have far more fun challenging themselves and having their progress noticed in the spontaneous way in which people do take delight in other’s achievements. I have seen children literally jump for joy, clapping and cheering when one of their friends manages an acrobatic manoeuvre that they have all been practicing but, until that moment, none could yet do. I have also seen them teach each other how to make an origami swan, solve a maths problem, sew a hem, or play a new song on the guitar. When there is an ebb and flow to learning and particular achievements are not reified through the ceremonies and trophies that mark one child as “better” than the others, children will strive for the excellence that matters to them.

Well this year there was no letter in the mail telling us that the one child we have left at school had won a prize. My daughter had to go to maths while the winners practiced walking on stage. It was hard for her (and me) because no teacher chose her. Having discussed school prizes with several friends this week, everyone seems to have their own stories. One woman always won prizes at school and her sister never did. Get your head around that for a moment. Another said her son missed out on a prize he was expecting because the criteria were slightly different than originally announced. One young man said that five years later, he still resents not getting the English prize in his last year as he had the top exam and assignment marks and “it made no sense.”

The usual cry is to “get over it” and we all do (life has other cruelties in store!), but why, exactly are our schools doing this? What function does it serve to mark out some as grand winners? Surely no one believes it makes students work harder? Imagine lining up all the young people in your extended family each year and the elders giving one or two awards for achievement and effort. Why should teachers be required to do this with the group of young people they have become close to?

In my day there was one prize for each academic subject and it was given to the person with the best exam marks. Now we have more prizes and most have a large subjective component. This is supposed to acknowledge other attributes but it also means that it is more personal. Students already get plenty of feedback on their standing relative to others during the year, and they all know who is good at each subject (at least in the eyes of their teachers). So why deliver this final verdict that simply serves to separate and divide?  School prizes are a finite game that seem to distract from our deepest values. Let’s ditch them.