Category Archives: School and learning

The Perils of Prize-giving

stripey eraserThe only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing. And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in Matric for ‘Social Awareness and Compassion for Others’. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we all wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time of school prize-givings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prize-giving in the December 4th issue of the Sunday times Lifestyle magazine (04.12.2011). He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation? In two of my previous columns I addressed these issues.

In ‘Pulverising kids with praise’ (Sunday Times 28/03/2010) I considered how easily-earned, excessive praise doesn’t really a child’s build self-esteem from the outside in.

In ‘Your kid is a Loser’ (Sunday Times 12/12/2010) I noted that all children lose some of the time, and some lose most of the time, yet their future success is determined by their persistence over time, not the number of trophies they are currently winning.

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed.  I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to …. “Thanks Mom”, he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prize-giving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning.  Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscars and the Nobel Prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decision. Those tools are called human beings. Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel Prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nobakov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards, makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prize-givings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition: Why Top Ten and not Top Eleven? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three Best Parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prize giving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never ‘got you’?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those,  that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Nonetheless. my award for milk consumption is a good memory, and I am still partial to dairy.

milk carton

Pragmatic parent-school partnerships

You’re a concerned parent and you’ve laid the foundation for your child’s educational success. Your home is full of books. You read or tell stories to your kid in bed. She likes conducting experiments, doing puzzles with you or reading an endless stream of bad jokes from her joke book. Even when you ignore your child, adult conversation in the home makes her aware of the world about her.

You’ve done a good job, not always intentionally, of preparing her for school. Perhaps it’s the state school down the road, or you’re paying a small fortune to a private college. At this stage you might begin to wonder what your role is.  Should you sit with your child while she completes every homework task, or should you leave it up to the school – after all, they’re the experts aren’t they? Should you defend her against every injustice or should you trust the school’s mechanisms to deal with your child’s issues?

I asked six teachers we know, from various schools, to give one piece of advice to parents. Here’s what they said:

  • “Don’t impose your memories of school on your child. Be knowledgeable about current teaching without being an interfering irritant.”
  • “Come to parents’ evenings. Keep in touch.”
  • “Work with me rather than gossiping in the parking lot. If you communicate contempt for teachers at home, believe me, we’ll know from your children’s behaviour at school.”
  • “[For school matters] let your child decide for herself and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “Raise your children in the home to see that learning is fun.”
  • “Get your kid organised. Teach them how to plan.”

The theme that runs through these comments is that you most definitely have a distinct role to play in the parent-child-teacher team, but understanding the parameters of that role is vital.parent-teacher-student1

Rule number one is to stay in touch with the school. Go to parents’ meetings and assemblies, respond to queries from teachers, check and sign homework where necessary, take part in some school activities aimed at parents. One teacher told me, “I probably shouldn’t admit this but if I know the parent well I give better service. ‘Seeing’ the parent’s face or ‘hearing’ their voice while I’m teaching or marking makes me a little more attentive to their child.”

Rule number two is to understand your limits. Support your child by encouraging organised work habits, responding to questions or providing advice, but don’t make decisions for them or do their work. A simple technique is to ask questions when your child comes to you for help, rather than give answers. If he asks you which famous person he should do a project on, don’t tell him – rather ask him to name the various people he admires and which one most interests him.  If he can’t solve a maths problem, don’t give him the answer – discuss various problem-solving strategies and then let him work out the answer, even if it’s wrong.

Like teachers, parents should not be out to gratify their own ego in the short term by coaching a child to false success. Rather allow children to learn from their own successes and failures.

The worst thing you can do is openly undermine teachers. Be realistic and realise that they, like you, are not perfect. Teaching is a tough job – it’s like running a children’s party on your own for six hours a day, every day. In your dealings with the school, bringing with you an understanding of teaching will increase the school’s support for you and your child. A friend of mine who is a parent makes a particular point of beginning the first parent-teacher meeting with a question or sympathetic comment about the difficulties of teaching – this helps him to actively imagine the teacher’s perspective and also makes the teacher feel understood.

What happens if there is a real problem at the school and your child is not able to deal with it himself? Perhaps a textbook is clearly racist, your child is being bullied or you believe the teacher is acting in some completely inappropriate way. Rather than moan about it in the parking lot or phone the principal, first contact the person with whom there is a problem. You teach your child a very powerful lesson if you first meet with the relevant teacher – that one should be brave enough to deal directly with a problem, and that both sides have a right to be heard before a matter is escalated. If that does not work out, take the next step up the school hierarchy.

Some reassurances – it’s ok if: one of your kid’s teachers is very strict; a teacher makes a mistake that will have no long term effect on your child; your child is given detention for a minor infringement; your child gets a B for a test, not an A, even though she always got As at her previous school; or your child doesn’t get a subjective award like Best Hockey Player. In the long term you want your child to be robust and resilient, which is less likely if you treat every mistake by the school as a major catastrophe or a plot against your child.

It all comes down to balance. It’s right to feel entitled to good service from your school. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that better-educated parents and their children, unlike those from disadvantaged areas, feel much more entitled to ask teachers questions or interrogate their ideas, which contributes to their success in the world. On the other hand you want to avoid being the kind of over-complaining parent who seldom lets his child make mistakes, suffer disappointment or find a way to deal with an imperfect world.