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 🙂