How to reward the best students while avoiding harmful labeling ?


Competition is often seen as a source of motivation. And… it’s true… to a certain extent. If you’re pretty lucky, organizing a competition between your students will dramatically increase the motivation of… the top ten.
You can also experiment a few drawbacks. A fierce competition tends to make nasty children and to prevent any cooperation between them, because the best ones will retain the keys of their successes. And obviously the worst students will not be encouraged to perform better. Nobody will ever strive to go from the 35th to the 32nd place.

They would rather give up totally, because you give them the idea that only the best matter and they know, as certain as death itself, that they’ll never get to the top. If the teacher tells their rank in front of everybody, there is a very serious risk that they will feel stigmatised and will be eventually labeled as a « bad students » with no serious chance of improvement. You just have to imagine how you’d feel if, day after day, you were described as the worst one. You can tolerate it a few times, but not all the time.

However, there is a solution that preserves the advantages of the competition while avoiding most of its disadvantages. You don’t necessarily have to forfeit your awards ceremonies. It’s allways sad to cancel a party, isn’t it ?
The competition will remain fair if the students don’t put too much emphasis on being the very best and if all of them have a chance to be rewarded in some way. It’s like any normal game. You win one day, you loose the following, but you try your best all the time.
I think that it can be achieved by awarding honourable mentions in addition to the prices given to the top students. The Honourable Mention (or accessit in latin) is by no way a new idea. It was invented precisely to address the above problem.

You can still rank the top 3 students. No need to rank more. The first three places are the only ones that are really motivating. Everybody can admit that there is someone better than themselves. There is no shame if you’re not in the very top, as there is a shame if you’re in the bottom. We admire the professional football players but we’re not necessarily jealous or bitter.
Then you reward by an Honourable Mention all the students who perform well, with no consideration to the rank. Even more, the teacher can reward any effort or success that is worth to mention, regardeless of the the average achievement of the student. Let’s take an example. Suppose a student who has a very low level. Let’s call him John. He’s in grade 8. His marks are usually very low. Writing is a real pain to him and he’s often discouraged, so he has a reputation of laziness. But for the first time in his life, John’s managed to read an entire book, a novel. Of course, he made a lot of spelling mistakes in the reading test, and it’s not possible to give him a very good mark. However, John deserves some kind of reward for the huge effort he’s just made. Even more, he needs it. Everybody needs some kind of congratulation from time to time. It’s as vital as food. We all need rewards for our efforts. We need some proof that we’re good persons. That’s what Honourable Mentions are made for: congratulate the successes that the teacher can’t assess with the ordinary marks. I think it’s a good way to create true emulation.
I would add a more surprising observation: sometimes even the very best students are in desperate need for congratulations. They have always very good marks. They get A+ all the time. But the adults they love and they respect seem to make no notice at all, as if the good marks were just normal. Some teachers or parents are too harsh with: “You can do better. There is always room for improvement.” Sure there is! But allow the children to be satisfied. Allow yourself to be satisfied. Allow people to be happy!
Obviously it would be ridiculous to award everybody with an Honourable Mention, but everybody should have a chance to get at least one. It would be equally ridiculous to lie to students. An undeserved success is NOT good for self-esteem. The teacher can not fool anyone with flatteries. Lies would only make the children treacherous and vicious. It’s enough to recognize the true successes when they occur, even if they are modest. And if they don’t occur spontaneously, it’s always possible to create occasions for successes. A school director can always invent some new prices for the award ceremony, providing that the qualities they reward are real.