Friday, June 5, 2015

Award or Recognition?

WARNING: This post contains abundant opinion not backed up by research or fact. It's just how I happen to feel.

On Twitter, I caught an interaction between Dean Shareski and Rafranz Davis, two educators whom I respect and admire. They were discussing the idea of awards, and how we simultaneously ask our students to ignore them while at the same time, celebrate them in popular culture.
I mentioned that recognition from someone I respect and admire would be so much more meaningful than an award from an organization that only focuses on awards as a business. Okay, I wasn't that erudite, but I only had 140 characters!

It got me thinking (which is why I admire those two so much): what is the value of each? What makes them important? Why do we emphasize recognition, and can we do it in a better way? Ultimately, my thinking brought me back to a theme central to my life. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Young Artist Award
Image: Wikimedia Commons
They're public celebrations of achievement. They reach a wide audience. They bestow the recipient with prestige. But what makes them prestigious? There have been sites popping up, claiming to be awarding excellence in education, but with a more sinister motive: they want links to their website which will increase their advertising revenue. (I recently read a blog post about this topic, but can't find it. If you can provide a link, throw it in the comments so I can edit the post and include the info.) An award is as valuable as we make it, and no more than that. Its value is based on the perceived authority of the organization bestowing the award.


In the new economy of free exchange of ideas, recognition is a valuable asset that comes directly from your peers. Being recognized by the people you're helping as someone who can help is, in my opinion, a more satisfying feeling than receiving an award. Sure, it's not as flashy. You can't put it on the mantle. You can't throw a line in your email signature or badge your blog as "helpful person" (okay, maybe you can, but that's not really the point). Recognition comes from doing good work and being generous. This can be public, and to a wide audience, or it can just be among friends. The value doesn't come from the prestige, but instead comes from the positive change you've facilitated.


I see this as a difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Awards are something you aim to get. There's a competition - not everyone can win the award. It ranks us, puts us into a hierarchy where some are more valuable than others. Sure, there are good awards out there, and I certainly am interested in following some of the award-winning educators to learn from them. Awards aren't a bad thing. In my opinion, they're just not as valuable as recognition. Being recognized as a leader comes from working with people, not in front of them. 

The big difference comes back to a conversation I often have with my parents, about the way the intellectual economy works. It's different from a financial economy - our resources are not finite, and do not lower in value the more they are dispersed. Imagine an awards show that's more than three hours long - how valuable is the prize awarded twenty minutes into the show? Does anybody really watch with baited breath, waiting to find out who wins it? I certainly don't (although I'm sure there are those who do). As we bestow more and more awards, each reduces in its perceived value. If there were only one prize handed out, it would be the focus. As we increase the number of awards, each is worth less in our minds (which, I believe, is the only place an award's value matters).

However, recognition is a different thing altogether. As we share recognition, it becomes more valuable, not less. It actually increases in value the more we dispense it. This isn't always true, since we need to respect and admire those who are doing the recognizing, but in my experience, the people I admire recognize others, and I've always gained from that recognition. I find new people, new ideas, new connections, and they tend to be people who are looking to make things better. Being recognized is not something one sets out to do - it's a reaction to what they do. And as we give out recognition, it only gets better.

Why do we do what we do?

Are we looking to win? Are we excited to stand in front of a crowd, hold up our trophy, and thank them? Or are we looking to lift others up? Stand them up in front of a crowd and thank them? In my opinion, a great leader doesn't stand and get thanked - a great leader stands up and thanks those who have helped him (or her) get to where he (or she) is today.

I'm not a great leader. Not yet. But I have people who help me every day, and I try to give back. Not because I want an award, but because I want them to succeed. As educators, we are agents of change, and ultimately, if we do a great job, we will help our students grow, succeed, and help others. We can't all win awards, but ask anyone to tell you a story about a teacher who made a difference in their life, and they'll have one. Recognition isn't public, it isn't sexy, and it doesn't sell, but in my mind, it's far more valuable than any award I could ever win.

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