What if We Replaced Academic Awards with Exhibitions of Learning?

Are academic awards the best way to celebrate learning?

While the practice of teachers selecting students for academic awards may seem like a benign way of celebrating intellectual curiosity and love of learning, the approach signals something a bit more sinister about how schools define and value achievement. The current system of giving awards to certain students might seem to be a way to elevate them as examples, but it actually communicates the idea of excellence as an “an inherently scarce commodity.”

This definition of achievement in the realm of school is highly problematic because it turns learning into a zero-sum game. As the practice currently exists, academic awards are another way of ranking students and turning school into a competition, where school becomes a way of “selecting talent, instead of developing it.”

Often schools short-list students for these awards based on their grades, which also poses some challenges. The prolific research of Thomas Guskey and the Aurora Institute calls into question grades as objective indicators of student learning, since they are often conflated by compliance-oriented tasks and teachers’ perceptions of student effort and other noncognitive factors.

In addition, students have virtually no voice in the process. How can we expect students to exercise agency and take ownership over their learning when it’s up to teachers to decide if and how to celebrate it?

As more and more schools transition to competency-based learning, the time is ripe to rethink how we recognize academic achievement in schools, and I have a proposal: let’s replace academic awards ceremonies with exhibitions of learning.

What is an Exhibition of Learning?

An exhibition of learning is a common form of summative assessment in competency-based learning environments. They may take a variety of forms, from a portfolio defense to a digital publication to a whole-school event. However, at the core of all exhibitions of learning is that they are student-driven presentations of work. Students work with an educator or mentor to decide which work to curate and how to present it. Each exhibition features an element of metacognitive reflection on the part of students where they articulate the impact of the work on their learning. Lastly, the audience for an exhibition of learning isn’t just a teacher. It’s designed for a larger audience, such as community members. To learn more about exhibitions of learning, check out GOA’s Catalyst Exhibition.

Why are exhibitions of learning a better way to recognize academic achievement?

To put it simply, exhibitions of learning are about celebrating the work, not the person. The way in which they are designed places the value on the application of knowledge and skills in a much more nuanced way. By placing the emphasis on the work and removing the focus from the individual student (or the faculty member advocating on their behalf), exhibitions of learning can counteract the adverse effects of extrinsic motivators on student engagement and well-being.

Moveover, exhibitions of learning allow students to exercise agency and become leaders of their own learning. While they might work in consultation with faculty, students are ultimately responsible for identifying what their best work is and then articulating the skills and knowledge they worked on while engaging with it. This means that the emphasis of an exhibition of learning is on the actual process of learning, as opposed to achievement.

Additionally, if the promise of competency-based learning is to “mirror how people learn, work, and succeed [emphasis mine] in the world,” let’s design an approach to recognizing academic achievement that mimics how adults succeed in the real world. Beyond the walls of a school, the way in which most adults achieve recognition is by presenting their work before an authentic audience. Whether the deliverable is a proposal delivered before a local council, an article published in a local paper, or a design for a bridge, the work serves as a conduit between the creator and the audience, and it’s the work product that fundamentally becomes the conversation of praise (or disparagement).

The final piece to consider is the notion of equity. One of the fundamental goals of competency-based learning is to fight systemic inequities in education. The promise of a rigorous education for all students means we believe that all students will produce varied and interesting work of high quality. The work products themselves might look different for different students, but at the end of it, all students are capable of producing high quality work that deserves to be celebrated.

There are certain elements of the current awards process that are worth keeping. The idea of celebrating students in a community setting and offering public affirmation is important to preserve. The question really becomes, What are some of the ways your school could reengineer awards ceremonies to truly celebrate student learning? Share your ideas with us on Twitter at @GOAlearning.

GOA serves students, teachers, and leaders and is comprised of member schools from around the world, including independent, international, charter, and public schools. Learn more about Becoming a Member. Our professional learning opportunities are open to any educator or school team. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter.

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