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Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. ~Pablo Picasso

Thoughts for the Teaching Artist is devoted to an ongoing exploration of the role of the arts in education. I believe that the arts are an integral, essential part of every person's education. Arts education develops 21st Century Learning Skills, supports all core subjects, creates empathy & builds bridges, and helps develop voice & vision.

The views expressed in Thoughts for the Teaching Artist are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer or any other persons or organization.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Awards & Rewards

It's Awards Season!  Now is the time of year when students are being recognized for their work in the arts, and that's a good thing.  Many of us slogged through our own student years with little to no attention being paid to our work, either by our peers, our non-arts teachers or even our own parents.  For some, school-wide or community-wide recognition was almost non-existent, let alone state or national honors. So as Teaching Artists,  we should be happy to embrace opportunities for our students' work in the arts to receive recognition.

To have a piece of student artwork selected for a juried show is exciting, both for the student and the teacher. For the cast and crew of a high school musical to receive accolades for their efforts is encouraging to the students, and validating to the director. To see arts students receive a small fraction of the attention that has traditionally heaped upon athletes may even fill us with a bit of smug satisfaction.  At last, justice!

And yet, some of these awards programs raise troubling questions.

What, exactly, are students being honored for?  By definition, awards programs are fundamentally product-oriented, and that's not inherently bad.  After all, in performing arts the ultimate summative assessment is the performance; in visual arts, the artwork itself.  No one is giving awards for the four ceramic pieces that cracked in the kiln, or the disastrous tech rehearsal that lasted seven hours.  And yet, the only way we get to the final work that can be judged is by being faithful to the artistic process that brings the work from concept to reality.  So being evaluated on the final product is not necessarily wrong.

But making the final product the most important thing, rather than the daily learning that comes out of the process, can potentially do our students a huge disservice.  As the focus increases on the product, its easy for the adults involved to invest too much of their own ego in the success of the final outcome.  Adults may begin to draw their own validation from the awards their students' work receives, rather than from the learning that has taken place during the process of creating that work. (For more on this, see my earlier post The Artist and His Ego.)

Too much emphasis on awards can cause students to value their own work based solely on the opinions of others, rather than on their own personal growth.  We need to teach our students that sometimes their work is being evaluated on a largely subjective basis.  Although we may use rubrics in our own teaching, often awards programs are driven by nothing more than the personal taste of the adjudicators.  In this respect, students are subject to the same whims of trend and taste that professional artists are accustomed to; think of the annual roundup of common-knowledge explanations about why some particular movie was not nominated for an Academy Award (Comedies don't win Best Picture!) or the Tony-timing dilemma (Opened too early in the season!  Opened too late in the season!)

Ultimately, students will continue studying the arts because somewhere along the way they have discovered  the link between themselves and the art form.  It is this opportunity for expression and exploration of their essential humanity that keeps them coming back.  When we are able to guide students into an artistic experience that brings those kind of personal rewards, then awards naturally stay in proper perspective.  The true rewards of an arts education will still shine bright long after the trophies have lost their luster, forgotten on a dusty shelf.


  1. Well said, Fearless Leader! The artist needs to remain rooted in self-referral and thus experience the joy brought by being true to that self and its uniquely personal journey.

  2. Darcy I cannot agree more. I tell all my students that enter competitions please use this as a goal for yourself, therefore, only compete with yourself. If you win great if not you have won anyway if you did your best and used it for growth. Thanks for your eloquence on the subject.

  3. Important and well thought out. The affirmation and confidence that comes from external recognition can be beneficial. But it is the teacher's job to help put these "awards" in perspective for students....and dare I say, for themselves! Thanks, Darcy for your insight and for the ongoing conversation!