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Redefining the (digital) Classroom

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why I Hate Prizes

Don't get me wrong - I love winning things as much as the next person. When my name is called in a raffle, I whoop and holler and run to claim my T-Shirt. However, when my name isn't called, I feel a sense of sadness... over a lost T-Shirt? As a (somewhat) well-adjusted grown person, I get over it immediately. However, can we say the same for our students?

Recently there have been a slew of challenges that my students have taken on (some examples: The Verizon App Challenge, The Doodlge4Google Program and the National STEM Video Game Challenge). While the kids were incredibly engaged during the process, had a great experience and learned a ton, all of that seemed to dissipate the moment they found out they hadn't won.

It may seem "bratty" or childish that the students were so upset by not winning - but as elementary and middle schoolers - they are children. We've done a lot of socio-emotional work with our kids to teach them that life isn't about winning, the process and learning is most important and to cherish that experience. However, what other messages are we subliminally sending when we attach high monetary and material prizes to otherwise very-worthwhile experiences?

The Verizon App Challenge, for example, was a great challenge-based learning project that my students completely owned. They put aside their school-day differences to join as a team and problem solve community issues collaboratively. As a result, they created an amazing app proposal. They were so proud of themselves and truly excited to share their app and even their process. They felt on top of the world. And then they didn't win.

There was no crying nor tantrums, but they were deflated. They asked what they did wrong and why their project wasn't "good enough." Suddenly the experience was no longer worthwhile to them. We worked to remember the process and build it back up, but the memory was still marred for many of the kids.

So for the next few challenges I've been telling them to ignore the possibility of a prize. I say, "There may be a prize, there may not be - but that's not important. Let me share the challenge with you and then you decide if you want to do it for the experience on its own." For each challenge they have elected to do it - prize notwithstanding.

As a result, they've simply had the experience. We are incorporating some gamefied results at the end - but they are badges. Recognitions of effort, achievement and process. Not a free netbook or cash prize. In the end, never request any follow up beyond asking for this feedback. "What did you think?" "What can I do to fix this...?" "How can I get people to use this?" etc... Constructive questions with constructive answers.

So much better than, "Why didn't I win?"


  1. Thanks for sharing this Jennie! I'm starting work on an Adobe Youth Voices contest with some students and hadn't really considered the way that I present the task to them. I'll put the emphasis on the process and the experience they are gaining.

  2. I totally agree with you. As a video teacher, there were lots of contests for my students to enter and many of them came with prizes. I tried to get my students to see that the contest was just another vehicle for publication. If their project turned out great or good enough for a contest, then they should enter it. If not, no worries. Try again. Completing a great project was the reward. The contest was extra. Winning the contest proved that your work could compete against your peers.

    Don't get me started on the discrepancy between judges of different contests. If often compared that to the difference between winners of the Oscars and the Golden Globes.

    1. Yes - the judging is nuts. I like the way you share these challenges with your kids - makes so much more sense!

  3. Yes, it is difficult to work so hard and then not get the "prize" at the end...but then, doesn't that happen in education as well? Collaborative work and collaborative disappointments are invaluable lessons. Individually, isn't it interesting that the American Idol runners up and "losers" (Jennifer Hudson) turn out to be the biggest winners? Although kids "lose" a competition, their work should be heralded to school boards, parents and businesses that may be interested in their ideas--just because they "lost" at one competition doesn't mean the work's over. Competitions provide them the opportunity to put their ideas out there to a wider audience. Teach them how to cope with the side-effect of disappointment, encourage them to take advantage of every opportunity to show their ideas and work; help them learn to find where their work is truly valued and they will apply these lessons to everything they do in life--especially when in search of their life's work.

  4. Jennie,
    You make some great points! It reminds me of Alfie Kohn's books, Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case against Competition.

    I also love the comments adding to the discussion. I appreciate Mr. Sill's emphasis on the product. It would be a huge challenge (and success) for the kids to learn to critique their own and their classmates' work. Then they can decide if it's excellent enough to enter the "contest." Whether or not the product was "published" does not negate the important work in going through the process.

    I also appreciate Maureen's comment about the contest just being a start. "...just because they 'lost' at one competition doesn't mean the work's over." Amen!

    The "winners" of the Verizon App Challenge, for instance, now take their proposal to the next step and develop it. However, nothing prevents a "losing" team from seeking a sponsor to help develop their app, sell it, and make a significant contribution. Like the American Idol example, nothing ensures success for the "winners", and nothing prevents the runners up and "losers" from going on to great success.

    Thanks, Jennie, for bringing up this discussion.