Home > 21st Century Learning, Assessment & Evaluation, Educational Leadership > The Matthew Effect Meets the Graduate

The Matthew Effect Meets the Graduate

Photo credit: Peter Harrison

It’s elementary and high school graduation season and, as the end of June approaches, engravers all across North America are hard at work grinding out an endless array of brass plates and trophies, all in the name of ‘celebrating excellence’.

The presentation of awards at graduation is an important cultural component of the graduation ritual we have crafted in our schools. For most schools awards represent a statement of acknowledgement for the ideals that schools are supposed to represent; academic, athletic and artistic achievements. The process seems innocent and wholesome enough, good kids getting their time in the spotlight, receiving a well-deserved and public acknowledgement.

But is this ritual necessary? Does it add value? Or, does the presentation of awards just confirm the reality that, for many schools and school systems, those that have much, get more (and those who have little, get less). This condition is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect; the expression that success tends to breed success is based upon a reference in the Gospel of Matthew in Christian Bible.

I think that the main purpose of public education is to counter the Matthew Effect. Public schools exist to develop literate, thinking citizens, the more of this type of citizen we have, the better off we all are – that’s what I believe. I also believe that, along with literacy and critical thinking, we also need to develop students who can work together; an essential skill now more than ever (and one that will only grow in importance). Is there room for individual awards at an event that is purported to celebrate the accomplishments of a class of students?

As an administrator and former grade 8 teacher, I’ve given out many awards. As a student I even received a few awards; but as my thinking evolves I’m not so sure that this is the way to go.  Aren’t the accomplishments and growth of each child worth celebrating?  I think of the challenges that some of my students have overcome, the types of things that just don’t show up in a mark book.

I wonder if part of the work we are doing to create 21st schools to support 21st century learners should include abandoning the 20th century ritual of ‘awards’.

I know I’m going to hear from both ends of the spectrum in this one 🙂

  1. June 23, 2011 at 8:15 am

    I see a lot of merit in your comment, Brian. However, I think there is merit in a ceremonial approach to acknowledge students’ completion of a phase in their education. It’s the singling out of individuals via awards that probably overshadows the accomplishment of the “also ran” who may have overcome huge obstacles to achieve their level of success. When I went to University in the 1950’s I knew several first year students who had graduated from Gr. XIII with top grades, scholarships and awards, but had never needed to study. Several of these from my residence flunked year one because of this attitude of invincibility.
    You have opened new lines of thought for me.

    • June 23, 2011 at 8:24 am

      Hi Brock,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, I was hoping to open up some thinking and some dialogue.

      I must say, I actually love the ‘ceremony’ of an elementary graduation, mostly because the grads still live in that state of ‘not quite a kid, but not quite an adult’. To me, it represents a rite of passage, like a secular confirmation or bar or bat mitzvah. Neither of those ceremonies hand out hardware, rather they celebrate the individual’s (and group’s) passage into a larger community.That’s what I’m hoping to create when I’m fortunate enough to have a school to lead as principal.

  2. June 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    The hardware needs to go, period.

    • June 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      Thought the post might summon forth a few “Kohnheads”. 🙂

  3. June 23, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    BTW I absolutely love the idea that we are there to counter the Matthew Effect, not perpetuate it.

  4. June 24, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Many years ago I taught in a Scarborough elementary school. We had a Grade 8 class in which the student with the highest IQ always had the highest grades. The student who was always second in achievement had the lowest IQ in the class. (I recognize the limitations of IQ measures.)

    The former sailed through school. The young lady who came second worked hard for her achievements.

    Guess who got the rewards. The teacher saw the irony here, but the system dictated who got recognized.

  5. Susan Dickson
    June 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    I’m torn between wanting to recognize the accomplishments of students, all students, and the limitations of an “award” system. We give out awards for many different reasons, in many ways throughout the school year. Outstanding teacher comes to mind. I don’t think that recognizing some students formally, negates the hard work of the rest of the students. Having said that, I know that school in general is not a level playing field, and that the outside experiences and supports that some students are privileged to have give them a much needed leg up. I’m concerned that in our efforts to honour all student learning, we could be losing some of the grandeur of the graduation milestone. I don’t think the solution is as simple as removing all awards from graduation ceremonies.

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