NOTE: In the summer 2014, Head of School Scott Looney published “The Future for Education: Why Hawken Has to Lead” in the Hawken Review. While over the last five years Hawken has worked hard to address the issues within the piece, much of what he described still applies because the project of redesigning school is just that complex. We thought it would be worthwhile to return to Scott’s piece to refresh your memory, name the problems we’re trying to solve, and propose ways we might fix what needs fixing. We’ve made modest revisions and have broken the article in a handful of posts.

This post is Part II.

James A. Hawken said about Hawken School, “The main purpose for which the school exists is the development of character.”  For much of Hawken’s history, students did not receive traditional report cards, but rather a “Character Card” on which Mr. Hawken and the teachers articulated how a student was progressing in acquiring character traits like resilience, generosity, courage, creativity, cooperation, and leadership.

Mr. Hawken and the other progressive educators of the early 20th century knew that an excellent education had to address the whole child, not simply focus on the traditional academic skills, because only the combination of academic skills and strong character traits would prepare students for college and the real world.

The progressive educators, most typified by John Dewey, were largely on target about education, but thanks to the standardization movement migrating to selective college admission practices, there was simply less room in preparatory schools for the development of character, because the pressure to “conform” to the standardization movement was so great.

A large body of research on success and happiness consistently shows that “non-cognitive” skills like cooperation, resilience, creativity, persistence, empathy, sense of humor, and leadership are far better determiners of lifelong success than academic skills. The research validates Mr. Hawken’s assertion that character development should be the highest purpose of a school.

However, the push for greater alignment with a standardized, content-driven curriculum left less room for school activities not directly related to the acquisition of content knowledge. Spending time in school developing leadership, empathy, cooperation, and creativity often comes in direct conflict with content mastery. Although the best and most creative teachers can find activities that support both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, many schools still devote far too little time and energy during the academic day to the development of non-cognitive skills.

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Measuring and Rewarding the Wrong Things

Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted.

William Bruce Cameron (Often attributed to Albert Einstein.)

The most obvious example of measuring and rewarding the wrong things in schools is the overuse of standardized tests, which measure lower order thinking. But that is clearly not the only area where our measurement and rewards systems are misaligned with the research on teaching and learning for students.

Why is it that students will work for hours and hours to master their roles in a play, to prepare for the weekend debates, or to hone their athletic skills for their next game without the use of grades or awards as the primary motivator? Everyone who has worked with students knows the answer: because their motivation is intrinsic.

Schools like Hawken do an amazing job of giving students many co-curricular opportunities, which enable them to invest their authentic selves in the direction of their passions. So why can’t we also do this within the academic program? I believe we fail to achieve the same level of internally motivated passion in the academic program largely because of two things: too much emphasis on content knowledge; and the overuse of extrinsic rewards, namely letter grades and awards.

At the end of every school year, Hawken’s Upper School holds an awards ceremony, during which students are recognized for excellence in the traditional academic subjects: English, science, math, etc. Although I am always happy and proud to celebrate students’ hard work, I also have sadness for the many students in the audience who are not mentioned during this long ceremony of public recognition. My love-hate relationship with the Awards Day Ceremony tradition presents an annual challenge as I formulate my closing remarks each year. My message to the students at the 2013 Awards Day ceremony highlights the concerns I have for our overemphasis on both grades and awards:

For the last few hours, we have had the opportunity to applaud excellence. It gives me, and all the adults in this room who have dedicated themselves to your success, great pride to see all that the students honored today have accomplished.

However, to end this celebration, I would like to make two points to encourage a little perspective. Let me comment on motivation and on character.

It is encouraging and energizing to receive public validation from others in the form of awards or even grades. Your life will be full of moments when you receive extrinsic, or external, rewards for your work.

However, there is a caution I want to share. These types of external, extrinsic rewards are addictive. They are like candy; they taste really good, and, in small doses, are fine.

However, addiction to these types of extrinsic rewards can lead you to measure your own success and happiness only through the lenses that others place upon you. Of course feedback from the external world is important; without it you cannot function in society or have legitimate relationships with others. But an overemphasis on rewards – on awards, grades, promotions, or recognition – can be, in large doses, toxic if it leads you to measure your impact, happiness, or achievement only through the eyes of others.

If your reason for getting up in the morning ever becomes solely trying to achieve praise, recognition, or adulation, you are in trouble. My hope, for all of you, is that your reason for getting up in the morning will always be to make a difference, to impact your corner of the world positively. If you do that with passion, expertise, and hard work, you will no doubt accumulate awards, praise, and promotion. But do not let those external rewards become the source of your motivation. Your internal, intrinsic sense of purpose and meaning have to remain your compass for you to have a truly fulfilling life.

To those who were recognized today: enjoy your hard earned praise; but make certain not to use that to measure your sense of purpose. There are many students in this room who did not get recognized by a specific reward who have had as meaningful impact on Hawken as those who were recognized. Be motivated by your purpose and your impact, not by the recognition from others. Awards and rewards are the icing, not the cake.

My last point: character.

The numerous awards that we celebrated this morning recognize excellence, dedication, and commitment. By celebrating these numerous areas of achievement in a public fashion, we not only honor those individuals for their dedication and accomplishments, but we make a statement of what we, as a community, value. We do and should value academic, artistic, and athletic achievement, as those are some of the core functions of a prep school like Hawken.

However, it would sadden me if in our attempt to recognize some excellence we accidentally devalue the excellence that did not have a category represented today. As a school whose original founding purpose is the development of character, we should also be recognizing ALL the many attributes of fine character, not simply the ones that MOST schools recognize: academics, arts, athletics, etc.

If we truly aligned our awards with our values, we might add awards like these:

  •     The Quiet Hero Award: Making a difference while seeking no praise
  •     The Best Host Award: For going out of your way to make visitors to our community feel comfortable
  •     The “I Fessed Up” Award: For the person who admitted his/her wrongdoing or failure when it would have been easier not to, solely because he or she knew it was the right thing to do
  •     The Atlas Award: For greatest resilience in the face of challenge
  •     The Most Selfless Award: For putting needs of others before your own
  •     The Facilitator Award: For using humor and graciousness to make others feel better and to make social interactions easier for others
  •     The “I Cleaned Up the Dining Room Table Even Though My Friends Left It a Mess, Because I Know It Is the Right Thing To Do” Award

I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the point: that those things that MOST define your character are, in fact, the kinds of things that never show up on the agenda for an awards ceremony.

I would posit that awards for high character, like the ones I just listed, could and should be among the most important things we might have recognized here today. But tradition and time constraints meant that we, in fact, did not. Does that mean the people in this room for whom the “Most Selfless Award” would be appropriate should feel any less terrific about their selflessness because we failed to give them an award? I certainly hope not. To quote our founder, James Hawken: “The main purpose for which the school exists is the development of character.”

So to end today’s ceremonies, I would like to invite all of you to join me in recognizing those many students in the audience who deserve recognition for acts of high character that we simply failed to fit into one of today’s standard categories.

Although students, or anyone for that matter, will always be motivated by a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, healthy schools should always emphasize the intrinsic over the extrinsic. Unfortunately, that is not usually the case, even at Hawken. The assumptions about what selective college admission offices value have put undue pressure on schools to favor extrinsic rewards, which can be listed as part of the college applicant résumé.

It’s interesting to note that the research on motivation suggests that students who operate with a high degree of intrinsic motivation actually outperform those who are motivated solely by extrinsic rewards of grades. In other words, one of the benefits of being intrinsically motivated is that students are more likely to achieve at a higher level than students who are simply chasing letter grades.


In the next post, Scott will outline a way forward.

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Scott Looney

Scott Looney

I joined Hawken School as its 10th head of school in July 2006. Since that time I've worked with talented faculty and administrators to advance the school with a variety of forward-focused initiatives that have earned national recognition. My belief in student-centered and authentic learning has fueled each effort including the founding of the Mastery Transcript Consortium in 2017.