Winners & Losers

“What is the best way to talk to my children about the gold medal winners (kids who shine academically in a particular subject are chosen once per term)? My son is always very negative and dejected when he doesn’t win a gold medal. I have said that you need to work for it, try really hard, not everyone can win, the winners are putting in super effort etc. He seems to take it that if he doesn’t get a medal he’s not being good/doing a good job.

Now I might be wrong, but I’m guessing that as he is on the young side, he’s experienced mixed success in reading/writing and doesn’t stand out in maths, arts or sport that he isn’t likely to win a medal. That is fine-it is something that needs to be learnt. However, what is the best way to deal with this?”

The idea that there are winners and losers within a group of learners is really confronting. Yet it is largely how our system is set up. We offer rewards, stickers and accolades as common practice in order to motivate our students to do what we want them to do. To publicly mark this child as a better performer than that one. To give the strugglers an incentive to step up their game.

The thing is, reward structures work on the notion that all children are on an equal playing field. That what it takes for one child to win an award is equal to that of another. This couldn’t be further from reality.

Some children are expending a huge amount of brain power just to maintain their posture. I wish this was an exaggeration on my part but it’s not. Every ounce of their being is working, working, working to give you the results you’re asking for.

If you still have your baby reflexes, if your eyes muscles are not well developed, if your sensory system is a step out of kilter, if you frequently have a nutritionally void breakfast, you are likely to be putting in a whole lot more effort than your peers. But this isn’t noticed. It isn’t recognised.

You may be the one wriggling in the classroom. You may be progressing slowly. You may find it hard to accurately follow instructions. This does not mean that you don’t deserve encouragement, acknowledgment and celebration. Learning is a process, not a product. And it’s an individual one too. Your learning journey looks different to mine. Your best is different from my best.

There’s no better example of this than my two children. For my seven year old, reading came easily. It was almost as though she snapped her fingers at age five and was able to read novels instantaneously. For my six year old though, it is a process that continues to demand thought, repetition and persistence.

If they were in a year one and two composite class together this year (which thankfully they’re not!) it would be easy to give Miss 7 all of the gold medals. She reads beautifully, she listens attentively and never puts a step out of place. My son has to work much harder to read, to listen and to follow instructions. He is able to do these things at the level expected…most of the time. But it doesn’t exude the same ease or confidence, even though he is calling on more of his brain power to do it.

Why should his learning journey be ignored? Why should he be made to feel that it’s a competition? That his success is dependent upon the failure of those around him?

I agree with Linda McNeil here, “measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning”. That said then, why do we continue to emphasise them?

So Educators, it’s Time to Scrap the Awards!

They simply aren’t needed. Tap into children’s intrinsic motivation as a driver for learning instead. A willingness to take risks, to create connections, and to follow inspiration will soon come.

And if you do feel the need to create a reward system, switch to a team model where the whole class works together toward a shared celebration. Each individual can feel valued for their contribution, even if it looks different to that of the person next to them.

Let’s Acknowledge the Effort

“You’re feeling frustrated that your poster isn’t as neat as Sarah’s but I want you to know that I’ve been watching the care and effort you’ve been putting into this project”.

“Reading is easier for some people than others. You might actually be working harder to learn than the person who got the gold medal. It’s just that ……… doesn’t realise this”.

“Do you feel as though you tried as much as you could? (Yes).Then you can feel proud of the effort you put in, even if this time around it didn’t give you the result you wanted”.

Can you see how something along the lines of the above statements is more respectful and truthful than “you need to try harder!”?

Please, Pretty Please, Value Individual Progression

“What can you do now that you couldn’t do at the start of the year?”

“Look at how much your writing has changed!”

“I remember when that task was really difficult for you. It looks like you’re finding it easier now?”

If you don’t feel that enough of these reflective discussions are being held within the classroom setting, ask for permission to borrow your child’s books and do so together at home.

All children need to view themselves as being on a lifelong journey of learning, with opportunities to set realistic goals for the future as well as to look back and see how far they’ve come. Let them ooze pride and confidence as a result, it’s a joy to see.

I’m definitely not a fan of ‘everyone’s a winner’. I do believe children need opportunities to lose graciously (or not!) through sport, board games and musical statues. But when it comes to learning, there should be no losers!

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