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Seven- and eight-year-old girls compete in a school cross-country race in Burlington, Ont. in this 2013 file photo.

Richard Buchan/The Canadian Press

For the first time in as long as anyone can remember, no one at Strathcona Elementary School in Chilliwack, B.C., won an award for athletics or academics this year.

That is because there were no awards to give.

Principal Jonathan Ferris eliminated the concept of the traditional award ceremony in the spring because he felt that "everyone needed the opportunity to shine."

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His move to scrap the awards is gaining traction among a small-but-growing group of principals and teachers who are challenging the way elementary and middle schools think about achievement and what motivates student learning.

It is also raising the eyebrows of critics, who argue that ditching awards and recognizing all is another way of coddling children and rewarding mediocrity.

Maddie Di Muccio, president of the Toronto-based advocacy group Society for Quality Education, said that high-achieving students are not necessarily given as much attention from their teachers, and are often times asked to hold back their enthusiasm for learning so others can catch up. Awards keep them focused and motivated to learn, she said.

"Students who earn good marks work hard to do so. They should be rewarded for that," Ms. Di Muccio said.

"The message that hard work receives distinction is ultimately a reinforcement that will serve an individual in all aspects of their lives."The research, however, is not as clear cut. There may still be a place for awards in high schools, where students depend on them for entry into university programs. But even though they are the staple in many elementary and middle schools, researchers have found the promise of a trophy or certificate extinguishes a student's motivation to explore a subject.

Education and parenting author Alfie Kohn said that awards undermine the quality of learning in a classroom when the point becomes to get high grades and defeat other students, not develop an interest in a topic. The vast majority of children who try their best and are still excluded from public award ceremonies become resentful and demoralized, he said.

"But perceptive people can see that the winners, too, ultimately lose from competition," said Mr. Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. "They come to see themselves as worthy only to the extent they've defeated others, they come to see everyone else as obstacles to their own success, which destroys any possibility of creating a sense of community and caring in the school, and they come to see the learning as just a prerequisite for getting that public pat on the head."

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That thinking has led to elementary schools in Parkland School Division, based in Stony Plain, Alta., to start reconsidering awards. Many have started moving away from the award ceremony.

"Our educational system is changing," said Parkland School Division spokesman Jordi Weidman.

Chris Wejr, a principal in British Columbia, said that when he and his staff scrapped the awards at his previous elementary school a few years back, the only complaints came from parents of students with high marks and who were no longer at the school. They criticized the school for drifting toward mediocrity by giving participation trophies to all students.

But staff at the school saw the same children winning each year for top academic marks, and they began to wonder if the award ceremony aligned with their vision for the school, which was to bring out the talents of every child.

"If every child has a strength, why are we only honouring academics and athletics?" Mr. Wejr asked. "We want to create a culture where every child has the opportunity to bring out their best. And it's our job as educators to bring out the best in each child."

At his current school, James Hill Elementary School in Langley, B.C., Mr. Wejr and his staff three years ago replaced the "class act award," a type of student-of-the-month, with one that highlighted groups of fifth-graders each month. By the end of the year, every graduating child was honoured.

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Mr. Wejr said that before the change, students would do things just to be recognized, and those who didn't win often felt their unique talents were insufficient to succeed.

Since the change, Mr. Wejr said parents have approached him to thank him for recognizing their child. He said that he has also noticed that achievement in the school has increased because children are more focused on the process of learning rather than an award.

"Those people who are giving awards are promoting excellence in a very narrow criteria. You're not promoting excellence over all," Mr. Wejr said. "We want a culture of excellence where every student can excel in their own way."

Nancy Perry, a professor of educational and counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia, said rewards are not all bad, especially for children who need an incentive to get started. But creating winners and losers through an award system in the elementary school years can keep a child from trying something new even if it results in failure, she said.

"Do we need to define excellence as one standard for all? Can we not recognize everybody for their learning?" Prof. Perry asked. "Learning doesn't necessarily mean the same thing for every child."

At Mr. Ferris's school, the assembly for the graduating class was different than in previous years. No student won a school service award or an academic proficiency award. Instead, as each Grade 6 graduate walked on stage, three pictures flashed behind them: one of the student as a child, a current picture and a stylized one of them in the future. The students spoke about how they showed excellence in school, what they were proud of and what they would continue to explore.

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"We didn't want to miss anybody," Mr. Ferris said. "Our job is to reach all of our students. I just believe that [all students] needed to be recognized."

September can be a stressful month as the pressures of school begin to ramp up for teachers and students alike. The Globe has five tips for keeping your cool as you head back to school Globe and Mail Update
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