Virtue is its Own Reward

3 August 2016

This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 August 2016

A few weeks ago a prospective parent asked me ‘what is Queenwood’s approach to prizes’? It was an unusual question from a parent, and a particularly acute one. Like most schools we have many ways of providing public recognition (awards, presentations, pockets, trophies, certificates, announcements etc). But we do need to be judicious in how, and how much, we do it.

A healthy community should be able to celebrate successes warmly and wholeheartedly. There would be something deeply wrong if doing well were seen as anything but a Very Good Thing. At school some children receive prizes or public recognition far more often than others, and we should be happy for them, without for a second thinking that they are more valued or important as a person because of it.

The complicated part is this: how much award-giving is too much? Formal, public recognition can be powerful, and can sometimes stimulate real improvement. If used well, it can spark a virtuous circle through which a child experiences the flush of reward, commits herself further, is pleased with her own improvement and ultimately becomes motivated for the long term by the intrinsic rewards of learning and progress. For young people, however, the pitfalls are many:

  • They can become reliant on recognition by others, judging themselves a failure and becoming demotivated the minute it stops.
  • They can focus on how well everyone else is doing, and lose the satisfaction that comes from their own progress.
  • They can start ‘trophy-hunting’ – seeking out that which offers badges and certificates, and sacrificing the fulfilment that comes from doing things that are of genuine interest and lasting value to them.
  • They can assume that only those activities and people which receive recognition and reward are seen as important, and feel overlooked and devalued as a result.

In each of these cases, there is a quick fix: give that student a reward – recognise him for something, anything. Young people, however, are not stupid and quickly see through praise and rewards that are offered lavishly. Kindergarten pupils typically love to receive anything with a handshake and a round of applause (and I do love handing them out!) but well before Year 7 they have usually seen through the ruse of participation certificates for all, and can even find them demeaning. As a girl once said to me, ruefully: ‘If everyone is special, that means no-one is special.’ (I think she was quoting from The Incredibles.)

In most schools, there is a constant stream of requests to introduce new forms of award and recognition. The requests are usually very reasonable and always well intentioned. The cumulative effect, however, is pernicious. I recall one school where, in the effort to make more students feel recognised and valued, the number of prefects had increased to nearly 50% of Year 12. The result was quite the opposite: those who missed out perceived it as a damning judgment: ‘I’m not even in the top half of the year!’ I have never seen a school with more distress and fury when the positions were announced. If the school had had fewer prefects it would have caused much less damage; it is easier to accept that you are not in the top 10%, and you are much less likely to start drawing unhelpful comparisons to try to decipher why you missed out. It was a wonderful demonstration of why anyone who really cares for the character and well-being of young people must have the courage to look like a Scrooge, and say no to apparently harmless requests for more prizes and positions.

So what is our approach? At Queenwood we do use awards, and we regularly celebrate success together – in our assemblies and newsletters and at gatherings like Speech Night. We expect our girls to be generous in encouraging and applauding each other. We reject, however, attempts to equate public recognition with value, or formal rewards with success. We believe that girls are more than their grades, that leaders are recognised by their actions rather than their badges, and that most of the time virtue is its own reward.

Ms Elizabeth Stone