“Everyone’s a Winner!”

Spear-Cartoon_3511Last week my daughter broke down in a pool of tears.

Trying to understand why she felt she was struggling in school when her report card indicated otherwise, she shared with me the practice of teachers rewarding students with an ‘A’ simply for effort, regardless of whether their answers reflect actual learning. My son, now a high-performing 10th grader, later confirmed a similar practice and experience at his prior school. What interests me has been their different takes and interpretations of this practice.

My son, in his younger years, viewed completion grades as an opportunity to ‘game’ the system, getting away with doing far less than he was capable of at the time. Naturally bright, charming and capable of excellence with minimal effort, it consequently became difficult to incentivize and instill the value of work ethic and discipline.

My daughter, on the other hand, consistently puts forth a good effort and wants to succeed. Excelling in some areas, while struggling in others, completion grades have become a meaningless mockery of her very real effort, while failing to provide her guidance in those areas where she needs to improve.

As I reflected on her tears and pain, I couldn’t help but think about our society’s noble, if mis-guided effort to build self-esteem in our children by declaring “everyone’s a winner!”

Yes, I believe every child should be valued as a human being and that the first step towards self-empowerment begins with the courage to try. I believe that every child has his/her own unique gifts to offer the world and is equally deserving of opportunities to both learn and achieve.

But when we reward effort by the same measure as output; when we reward completion without regard or consequence for quality, it becomes impossible for us to differentiate ourselves and truly understand the measure of our strengths and weaknesses. “Better to make a hard-earned ‘C’ than an easy ‘A’,” my father used to say. And it’s true. 

Rewarding effort by the same measure as result ultimately demotivates and undermines self-esteem. Rewarding completion without regard for quality incentivizes complacency and mediocrity, a surefire recipe for disaster. 

A while back I wrote a post called, The Courage to Try.  I wrote that true confidence comes from within — not only from the courage to try, but the ability to persevere through difficulty, our commitment to see a project thought to completion, and our willingness to both fail and rise up again.

But confidence also comes from taking pride in a job well done. It comes from our commitment to learning and excellence, attainable only in so far as we are first capable of understanding those areas where we still need to grow.

I’m curious…

How do you feel about rewarding effort by the same measure as achievement? In an increasingly global competitive marketplace, what are the individual and societal implications of rewarding effort equally, without regard for differentiating skills or ability? How do we build true confidence, discipline and a passion for excellence from within, when our efforts are dis-incentivized from without?

4 thoughts on ““Everyone’s a Winner!”

  1. A society where everyone gets a prize can only lead to the comments and feelings your children have expressed. When growing up in this environment, how do they then cope when they meet with failure in adult life? We all experience failure a lot more often than we experience success. , Childhood is a learning ground for life, people need to learn coping skills as a child,by not learning coping skills it often leads to suicide, low self esteem and also leads to people not having sufficient confidence in believing they can take care of themselves and solve their own problems.

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    • Thanks so much for chiming in! I share your thoughts, completely. There is a balance between acknowledging each child/person as unique, complete with unique gifts and talents to offer the world, and pushing them out of their comfort zone, where growth actually occurs. Learning where our true strengths and weaknesses lie also enables us to close those gaps in learning, while honing our strengths for success.

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  2. Hi Sharon. You’ve nicely framed the ongoing debate on school grading practices which includes everything from social passing (from one grade level to the next) to finding the proper balance between process and product. It is a tough issue, to be sure.

    As a former school superintendent and school administrator, I advocated for high standards (over standardization) by identifying and committing to things that achieve the greatest learning and achievement results for ALL students. A highly standardized school, on the other hand, tends to do a good job at sorting, at weeding out the kids that can’t make it resulting in high drop-out rates. A school with high standards emphasizes learning and achievement and employs differentiated teaching practices to cater to the varying learning needs of students (from the struggling ones to the academic stars). This type of approach values the process of learning and allows students to demonstrate their learning and level of achievement in various ways. The final letter grade becomes so much more meaningful. But like anything else in schools, to be of value, it has to be valued by students, staff and parents. In my view, it is only possible if you have a skilled and focused teachers with the right kind of collaborative school leadership.

    I realize the vast majority of schools or districts have not adopted a personalized learning philosophy. So whenever and wherever possible, seek out the very best classroom teachers for they tend to be the most student-centred and committed to the overall learning and welfare of students.

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    • Gary – You advocate important concepts — high standards, collaborative leadership and differentiated teaching, each critical elements in creating a high-performance learning environment for all. Thanks so much for sharing your own experience and valuable insights!

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