Most South African parents and pupils are familiar with the school practice of gratifying students for academic achievement in a visible, tangible and public way. Schools tend to reward in a traditional and unique way. Some rewards can be seen on the students’ school uniform, such as a special kind of tie or jacket. Other common shapes are pins that are worn on the lapel with words like “Math” or “English.” These serve as a daily reminder of the student’s accomplishments and last well beyond the ceremony in which they were presented.
Schools say reward programs recognize hard work and education achievements and that they motivate the students to achieve it. One might be inclined to believe that there is nothing wrong with this practice, since the underlying intention is to motivate and recognize students.
But it is not as simple as you might think. Rewarding students for their academic achievement can be problematic on many levels. Who decides who is rewarded? What achievements are considered worthy and worthy? Do the achievements of some matter more than others? Who decides the criteria for the awards? Are all children not worthy of recognition?
In South Africa, rewards should be viewed in the context of inclusive education. Inclusive education is concerned with learning and achieving everybody students in the classroom regardless of their origin, socioeconomic status and (disability).
This can be achieved by collaboration among students in the classroom, addressing social injustices by providing access to all students, promoting democracy above a hierarchy, and defending the rights of all students. the Constitution It clearly states that everyone has the right to basic education, and this covers all children regardless of their abilities.
Me PhD research explored the ways in which visibly rewarding students for their academic achievement is consistent with the goals and ideals of inclusive education. I looked at the impact of visible rewards on all students to assess whether they were a barrier to participation and achievement for some.
I discovered that the current reward system was incompatible with the goals of inclusive education. Schools should review the ways in which students are encouraged to achieve their goals.
A total of 141 participants from two secondary schools in Gauteng province participated. I first surveyed the parents of the students, and then I interviewed the teachers, the school administration, and the 11th graders themselves. In this grade they are usually 17 years old.
Of the 104 students who completed the surveys, 66% were awarded. I found that they overwhelmingly felt that their award-winning status had an effect on their identity. Who they were and how the teachers treated them depended on the awards they won.
Many students felt that their hard work and talents were not recognized, as the criteria for being visibly rewarded were narrow and did not take into account a wide range of talents.
Students also felt creativity was overlooked in the awards, which were based primarily on test and exam results. Some students found it difficult to work for awards and were unmotivated. Some expressed a desire for a social life, such as spending time with their friends, rather than spending every weekend studying for a possible reward.
The study found a disparity between the competitive environment present in these schools and the ideal of inclusive education. Visible rewards perpetuate exclusionary beliefs and attitudes, acting as a barrier to inclusive education. Ideally, students should not work for a reward, but because they enjoy learning. So the school system would be creating lifelong learners.
These findings are important because South African schools are working within a context that relies on correcting the mistakes of a historically shameful past in which schools separated students based on race. Helping all children learn and reach their full potential means fostering a school environment based on collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
Students need opportunities to work together to achieve educational outcomes, with a clear emphasis on the success of all students, rather than the success of a few.
Competition and post-school opportunities
Competitiveness pits one student against another in a zero-sum game. For a student to be the best and win awards for outstanding achievement, their peers must lose. This kind of expense is too great to ignore in a country plagued by inequalities.
Highlighting the excellent achievements of a few students privileges some over others, whether intentionally or not. This hierarchical structure found in schools has implications for students seeking opportunities also after school. During my study’s focus group interview, students described college scouts who came to school and immediately focused on students wearing pins on their clothing indicating the status of their award. The rest of the students were ignored.
In the words of an eleventh grader:
Children who are intelligent are shown to be better than others, and students who try hard and work hard to achieve their best are rejected.
Many European Union countries, such as Germany, Sweden and Finland, do not have award systems to recognize student achievement. However, schools in these countries produce excellence in academic achievement. Furthermore, alternative education models such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia do not support the competitive style of education and the success of these methods is well documented. These so-called alternative teaching and learning methods focus on self-regulation, self-motivation, and lifelong learning.
For education to be inclusive and for schools to enable learning for all children, reward systems must be challenged.