You may have heard about James Harrison, the football player who took away his kids participation trophies because he wanted them to earn these trophies, rather than get them just for participating. For the purpose of this discussion, we'll set aside any thoughts about whether Mr. Harrison is a good parent, which is questionable. James Harrison and the trophies were a topic of conversation at our recent Northern State University back to school workshop featuring Bob Upgren a Northern State University graduate.
In our back to school workshop, Bob Upgren made the point that through recent years, self esteem has become so central to what we do when nurturing children and students, that we are afraid of doing anything that could reduce students' self esteem.
I have covered the idea of participation trophies in education in a previous post, but this is a chance to discuss this idea further. I have observed that in education, we are too afraid of hurting students' self esteem, we almost won't give students any correction at all. We're afraid to say, "no, you don't get it," or "you need to work harder," or even "this is not your best work." We forget that students learn more when they are corrected, not when they are passed along through even though they didn't learn the content they were supposed to.
With programs such as ICU, we have even tried to make it impossible that a student can fail. We've been pressured to pass students even when they just won't do the work or have severe discipline problems. We provide opportunity after opportunity to students to complete their work and go way beyond reason to allow them to catch up in class. What does the student learn in the process? They learn that it's okay if they don't meet deadlines, if they don't care about the work they do, and if they don't act appropriately for a professional situation. They will still get their "participation trophy."
Because we're not willing to give any correction, and because we're not willing to fail students, is an "A" grade now only as meaningful as a participation trophy? How about a high school diploma? I hope not, but I increasingly worry that this is true.
If you're concerned about this issue too, please be willing to give correction to your students. Please give a deserving student a failing grade. And here's a tip about giving feedback to students: Good research in education shows that clear feedback that focuses on student effort is much more effective than feedback that focuses on student intelligence (Dweck, 2002). We need to link outcomes and grades to effort, not intelligence. For example, instead of saying "good job, you are a smart student," say "good job, you worked hard on this assignment." Also, more specific feedback that focuses on how a student performed on a task is better than empty praise (Shute, 2008).
Let's keep a high school diploma from becoming a participation trophy.
Dweck, C. S. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 37–60). San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.
Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153–189. http://doi.org/10.3102/0034654307313795