3 Ways Schools Condition Students

Several times a year, I will receive emails from parents about a post I wrote in 2010 titled, “The Impact of Awards”. Often, they are reaching out because they are struggling to watch their own children have issues at school because of the culture of “school awards”. I encourage you to take a look at the original post, but here is one of the major themes:

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To this day, people still challenge me that this post is about being soft on kids, but to me, it is about understanding what we are focusing on. Are we trying to develop students as deep and thoughtful learners, or do we inadvertently do things that have students focus more on awards or grades than learning? If anything, once I stopped focusing on awards and grades as being a driver, my expectations for my students became higher, as it did for myself. Helping students reach their fullest potential and help them achieve their dreams is a lot harder to do long-term, and will take a significant amount of dedication from both student and educator.

This doesn’t stop at adulthood. I have seen educators focus incessantly on winning recognition, not for the content of their work, but how many RT’s or votes they can receive from others. Does this short-term recognition do anything long term for individuals other than providing a nice recognition in their twitter bio? I am not against awards, but I struggle when we lose focus on doing the hard work.

Here is the thing…Kindergarten students don’t walk into schools wondering what their grade is or why they didn’t get an award. We condition them to that. What seems innocent early on in school, can do damage later. Many teachers at higher levels struggle with having students do something that requires deep thought in the process, and you might even hear, “Just give me the test so I can move on.” This is learned behaviour through schools. Give me the assignment, I give it back, mark it, let’s move on.

As kids go through the process of school, here are three things that inadvertently condition them (and sometimes parents) within the process of school.

1. Grades as a driver

As many schools are moving towards comprehensive reporting, sharing with students through thorough comments and assessments what they have learned, many students still ask, “What’s my grade?”, not worried about the comments. Many parents do the same thing.

Understand this…Grades, no matter how scientific we believe them to be, they are subjective. Yes, if a spelling test is given, I can tell exactly how many words are spelled wrong and spelled right. But, how much do you weight that spelling test on a final grade? If later in the year, a student can spell all of those same words correct, are you using an average or are you disregarding previous tests and giving what they know at the time. If the job of teaching is to help students learn things they don’t know, why do we punish students later on in the year for learning the things they didn’t know through averages?

What about languages? What does an “A” look or sound like in teaching French? One student could have the same ability in two different classes and get two different marks, yet if you want to really hear how a student has improved in French, why not use podcasts or videos to hear them speak French throughout the year? This is so much more powerful than what any grade could provide to show growth. Do you teach students to get an ‘A’, or do you focus on teaching them to be fluent? Many kids can get an ‘A’ in French yet walk out of the classroom and not keep any of the language.

Kids do not walk into school asking for grades, but they do crave learning. We need to do whatever we can to keep their focus on that instead of a number and a letter. I know that if people wanted to wreck blogging for me, grade my posts. That would do the trick for me and I am afraid it doesn’t help students either.

2. Receiving Awards

Way too early, we teach students that our “best learners” need to be recognized for their achievements. Yet, sometimes our best learners are not the ones winning the awards. Sometimes it is our most compliant students, who have learned to play the game of school, as you can read in this speech from a valedictorian, Erica Goldson:

I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer — not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition, a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and becomea great test taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.
We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special. Every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation rather than memorization, for creativity rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.1

Many of our brightest students are not academically gifted. Do we look for that brilliance? Do we recognize it when we see it? Think about this…how often do we go to a conference or have a PD day that is solely focused on getting better grades, as opposed to professional learning that is focused on finding genius in each one of our students. There is not one program or procedure that can guarantee that all students will do well academically, but I guarantee you that if you looked for strengths in each one of the children you serve, you could find it.

Yet that genius is diminished based on how well a child does at school. One parent shared with me that an awards ceremony at their school, only students with a certain GPA were allowed to even attend. I know there is always two sides to the story, but some of your hardest working students could miss these types of events because of factors outside of their control.

Let’s just get something clear here…I do not believe that you should give every student an award, and I am not into participation ribbons. We tried to solve a problem that we seemed to create in education by moving from one side of the pendulum to the other. But letting students know they are valued and appreciated for their gifts is something that I believe in deeply (as I do for adults…don’t you want your boss to see the same thing whether you win an award or not?).

Just a question to think about…if you were to start a school from scratch, would awards for “top student” be a part of this plan? If not, then why do we continue with it in our current schools? If so, why?

(For more reading on this, I highly recommend the book “Drive” by Dan Pink. It changed my thinking significantly on the topic.)

3. Compliance good. Challenge bad.

I am guilty of saying this earlier in my career to the question, “Why do we have to learn this?”

“Because I said so.”

That’s it. No discussion. Do as I say because I am the adult.

But “challenge” is a good thing, and it should be encouraged. Think of something as simple as providing a rubric for students. Do we ask, “What do you like about it and what would you change?”, or do we not bother because we are the “expert”?

Do we encourage kids to share different worldviews their on our own, or do we hope to convince them of what we believe? Do we understand that a student’s experience is not the same as our own, and does that encourage us to try to empathize and learn about them, or condition them to us?

Iron sharpens iron. We should not encourage students to only challenge their peers, but ourselves as educators. This does not mean that they are disrespectful, but teaching students to challenge ideas and thoughts in powerful yet respectful ways is a great skill to be developed that makes us all better.

I have asked students to stay in my presentations to adults and give me feedback on what they liked and what they don’t. They almost seem in shock that I would want them to challenge me, but if I am truly speaking to serve them, the only way I know I am on the right track for them is if I get their feedback.

When we remember that we serve the students and not the other way around, we see that challenge from our students is not only beneficial but crucial to growth to serve them.


Kids are curious when they walk into schools. If we aren’t careful, they will lose that along the way becoming slowly lost in the process of “school”. There are so many things that are going on in schools that are currently amazing. I have a more of a significant change in education in the past five years than I have seen in my previous 15 as an educator. That being said, this doesn’t mean we can’t challenge our traditions and norms and continuously ask, “Is there a better way?”

This question should never be off limits for anything we do in education.