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Rewarding academic achievement in schools creates barriers: a South African perspective

Schools tend to reward in ways that are both traditional and unique.
Schools believe that rewards recognise the pupils’ hard work and academic achievements. Image: Getty Images

Most South African parents and learners are familiar with the school practice of rewarding learners for academic achievement visibly, tangibly and publicly. Schools tend to reward in ways that are both traditional and unique. Some rewards can be seen on the learners’ school uniform – like a special kind of tie or blazer. Other common forms are pins worn on the lapel bearing words such as “Mathematics” or “English”. These serve as a daily reminder of a learner’s achievement, lasting well beyond the ceremony in which they were presented.

Schools assert that reward programmes recognise hard work and scholastic achievements and that they motivate learners to achieve. One might be inclined to believe there’s no harm in this practice, given that the underlying intention is to motivate and recognise learners.

But it’s not as simple as one might think. Rewarding learners for academic achievement can be problematic on many levels. Who decides who gets rewarded? What achievements are considered valuable and worthy? Do the achievements of some matter more than others? Who decides the criteria for awards? Is every child not worthy of recognition?

In South Africa, rewards need to be considered in the context of inclusive education. Inclusive education is concerned with the learning and achievement of all learners in the classroom regardless of background, socio-economic status and (dis)ability.

This can be achieved through collaboration between learners in the classroom, addressing social injustices by providing access to all learners, promoting democracy over a hierarchy and upholding the rights of all learners. The constitution clearly states that everyone has the right to basic education, and this encompasses all children regardless of their abilities.

My PhD research explored the ways in which visibly rewarding learners for academic achievement is consistent with the aims and ideals of inclusive education. I looked at the impact of visible rewards on all learners to assess whether they served as a barrier to the participation and achievement of some.

I found that the current rewards system was inconsistent with the aims of inclusive education. Schools should revisit the ways in which learners are encouraged to achieve.

The research

A total of 141 participants at two high schools in Gauteng province were involved. First I surveyed learners’ parents and then I interviewed teachers, school management and the grade 11 learners themselves. In this grade they tend to be 17 years old.

Of the 104 learners who completed surveys, 66% were award-winners. I found that they overwhelmingly felt that their award-winning status had an effect on their identity. Who they were and how teachers treated them depended on the awards they won.

Many learners felt that their hard work and talents went unrecognised, as the criteria for being visibly rewarded were narrow, and didn’t take into account a broad range of talents.

Learners also felt that creativity was overlooked in awards, which were mostly based on results from tests and exams. Some learners found it difficult to work towards awards, and became demotivated. Some expressed their desire for a social life, like spending time with their friends, instead of 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, learners should not be working for a reward, but because they enjoy learning. Then the schooling system would be creating lifelong learners.

These findings are important because South African schools are working within a context that is premised on correcting the mistakes from a historically disgraceful past where schools separated learners based on race. Helping all children learn and achieve to their full potential means fostering a school environment that’s built on collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

Learners need opportunities to work together to achieve educational outcomes, with clear emphasis on the success of all learners, versus the success of a few.

Competition and post-school opportunities

Competitiveness pits one learner against another in a zero sum game. For a learner to be the best, and to win awards for that outstanding achievement, his or her peers must lose. This kind of expense is far too great to ignore in a country fraught with inequalities.

Highlighting the sterling achievements of a few learners privileges some over others, whether intentionally or not. This hierarchical structure found in schools has implications for learners who seek opportunities post-school as well. During the focus group interview of my study, learners described university scouts who came to school and immediately focused on those learners who wore pins on their clothing indicating their award status. The rest of the learners were ignored.

In the words of one grade 11 learner:

Children who are smart are shown to be better than everyone else, and the learners who try and work hard to achieve their best are shunned.

Many countries in the European Union, such as Germany, Sweden and Finland, have no award systems for recognising learner achievements. Yet schools in these countries produce excellence in academic achievement. In addition, alternative schooling models such as Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia don’t support the competitive schooling style and the success of these methods is well-documented. These so-called alternative methods of teaching and learning focus on self-regulation, self-motivation and life-long learning.

To make education inclusive and to make schools conducive to the learning of all children, rewards systems must be questioned.The Conversation

Shakira Akabor, Postdoctoral Research Fellow , University of South Africa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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We should celebrate stick fighting and gum boot dancing. These are essential skills to survive in life. We Forget about Mathematics and Science. These are just WMC distractions.

Socialist viewpoint

Same as the victim mindset…

When the word Collaboration is bandied about it means nobody knows what the F$%^K is going on………..and everyone relies on the person that worked hard and was rewarded accordingly for their diligence.
I have seen this in play at one of the traditional banks with a Red logo!
No wonder the world is made up of losers, slackers and wannabe dropouts but they ALL want the niceties in life. Not knowing how hard work results in rewards – and slackers should not think that they can hitch a ride on the coat tails of hard workers who are diligent and fastidious in their work.

Having grown up in a household with money for essentials only, I was always so jealous of the kids who got books for prizes. We had no children’s books in our house, except for library and school books. How I wanted a book! Better to give the poor readers books to encourage reading, and the high achievers a certificate.

In the looting spree recently, Exclusive Books was untouched – explain that. Im sure there were many “poor readers” in that lot, both literally and figuratively.

A “Postdoctoral Research Fellow” – i.e. someone in one of the most exclusionary positions on the planet – is telling everybody that we are all the same and that our ideas are all of equal value. Any person who attended school before say 2000 knows instinctively that someone who gets a distinction in mathematics and someone who gets a B do not have the same level of comprehension of the subject. So the F and G achievers that nowadays successfully (and with great confidence, one should add) matriculate are in a different league altogether. The false gospels of “equality of outcomes” and Critical Race Theory are the rot that will finally destroy human rights and Western civilisation. (There is currently only Western civilisation, the current crop of others are merely poor copies).

You got it – hit the nail on the head.

This is the typical “Outcomes” based approach.Achievent deserves recognition, but children should also not feel excluded.I never received ONE AWARD during my entire education.But I graduated at University level nontheless.
Comparing S.A. to European schools is problematic.What is required here is a learning culture.My spouse was a teacher in a township school for close on 20 years.THATS a dismal affair.No commitment from staff in genetal, let alone any recognition for the bright ones.(I’m assuming the researcher included some of those?)
Equal opportunities should be paramount. Outcomes are not and will not ever be the same.

Just give them all a participation trophy so they feel “special”.

Hahahaha! Yet more PC rubbish, pretending that everybody is equal in every way. Clearly that’s not true. You can run, but you can’t hide from genetics and inherited intelligence.

This must be the absolute worst article I’ve ever seen on Moneyweb. The entire premise lacks a recognition of narcissism inherent in the responses, where achievement and hard work is simply reduced to being a victim of the pursuit of recognition. Instead of rewards for achievement, this research, in a highly disguised format, recommends that all children should receive “participation” awards, where the reward criteria is determined by themselves, for themselves. Johnny did a handstand during a talent show? Give him award colours for Creative Art. Neo trained harder than she ever did in her life, and placed 5th in the 400m inter-schools athletics. Award her colours for Athletics. While recognising achievement is important, and personal achievement should always be highly encouraged, some achievements are greater than others. Period. Usain Bolt and Akani Simbine don’t deserve gold medals each for the 100m Olympics, even if Simbini broke his personal best 10 times in the meet – if Bolt bests him in the final, there should only be one medal for coming first. At this rate, every employee and graduate would be a Forbes30under30 and employee of the year. Just more and more proof of the amount of useless dredge being passed as research these days.

…… My dad used to always say when attending a dinner party and someone mentions they have a PhD – always ask in what.

the hands down flags on my first post lol – we know exactly who’s all sitting with the useless bachelor of arts and political science degs…. Just remember even thu u like to play dress up and fancy office play with other people’s money – the humble rubbish collector has a far more important role in modern society than u.

I can just see Shakiras thesis for her coming proffersorship no doubt…..

” why achievers need to be punished and thier rewards be redistributed for the greater good. “

Tall Poppy Syndrome. A cultural phenomenon in which people hold back, criticise, or sabotage those who have or are believed to have achieved notable success in one or more aspects of life, particularly intellectual or cultural wealth – “cutting down the tall poppy”. [Wikipedia]

Reminds me of trying to get a “Pass one, pass all” rule implemented.

I doubt any achiever works hard with the little tin badge in mind. The badge is a side issue. Take away the badges, hand out awards for attendance and trying hard. End result is the same : kids will achieve or not achieve what they did before.

(Achieve being an objective measure)

It was nice to be praised for academic / sport achievements. We didn’t do it for the blazer but we did like to be acknowledged with a well done.

Perhaps the problem lies more with the fact that most children need schools to help find a suitable vocation since not everyone should go to university/academia. Vocational and trade schools and helping society be productive.

China, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong are making rapid progress in all spheres and are world beaters in about everything.

They will laugh this theory of Akabor out of existence.

It is like saying Kolbe and Wayde van Niekerk should not be heralded for their outstanding achievements.

Well done on the Doctorate, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. In essence, you’re still blaming the past — some 26 years later? Yes, some students have it better/easier than others, but what’s your ‘solution’?

This is not an article worth publishing in Moneyweb.

I don’t agree at all that recognition of academic or any other achievement, such as sporting, should be scrapped. I also find the author’s focus narrow, why not also suggest the scrapping of recognition of sporting achievements?
And isn’t it a bit naive to think learners should enjoy learning for it’s own sake? I only enjoy learning in subjects I’m interested in, definitely not most of the stuff I learned at school.

So you support the award of a PhD in your own case, but not a merit badge for academic achievement for a school kid? Did both not come through hard work and dedication? Also, school is there to prepare kids for the real world. Do you think there are no winners or losers in the real world? Handing out trophies to all, or worse banning recognition of achievement will not have any good outcomes. But you are welcome to hand back your PhD if you feel strongly about this.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”

Why must everything be seen in the prism previously advantaged and previously disadvantaged? I went to a school in the neighbouring countries in the 80s and 90s and it was a not former Group A or whites only schools. There were plenty of us education refugees. Every year especially in the third term every school rich and poor held a Speech And Prize Giving Ceremony also called Parents Day. Children would be rewarded with books and school bags or cases, mathematics sets, colouring pens etc.

When I moved to a former Group A school, I got rewarded for my public exam O level Academic performance achieved at my previous school with Academic Colours before adding some more in sport.

Over years, the top academic schools in the neighbouring country are the historically black schools including proving once again that motivation and commitment counts for more than resources.

End of comments.





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