Awards! Awards Everywhere! (Or, the UK's Awards System)

The UK loves awards even more than Texas.

Everywhere I've gone, I've seen posters listing requirements for awards, worksheets students can fill out to receive awards, advertisements for how programs can help students win awards, etc. Interestingly, most of them seem to be focused on personal improvement, as opposed to being "the best" at a particular skill. They help students identify areas of interest, learn how to teach themselves skills, research future opportunities, and plan and execute their own independent projects. I've long believed that the most important skill teachers can teach is autodidacticism. But how exactly does one teach that? I think that all of the awards in the UK (and the importance that teachers, admissions officers, and employers ascribe to them) go a long way towards teaching students how to be autodidacts.

The most well-known award seems to be the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. You can start working towards this award if you're between the ages of 14 and 24. There are various tiers of award (gold, silver, and bronze) depending on how old you are. There are specific ways for students to upgrade from one tier to the next as they progress through their secondary school careers. All of the awards center on achievement in four areas: volunteering, physical, skills, and expedition. Students looking to receive the gold Duke of Edinburgh's (DofE) Award also have to complete a residential requirement. Students need to volunteer with a charitable organization for twelve months to be eligible for a gold DofE award. (There's an opportunity board on the DofE website that helps connect student volunteers and organizations.) Students need to participate in some kind of athletic activity (team sports, fitness, extreme sports, martial arts, dance, etc.) to meet the physical requirement, and they need to join an after-school club or develop their own skills enrichment program in a topic that interests them (performing arts, science and technology, media and communications, board games, etc.).* They need to focus on one of these areas (either physical or skills) for twelve months and the other for six months. For expedition, students need to explore the great outdoors -- hiking, cycling, or boating -- and complete a project based on their experience. Two suggested projects were "planning a route around three of the places that inspired Wordsworth's poems in the Lake District" and "using the cycle system in the Netherlands to undertake a research project on the provisions and quality of cycle paths compared on Britain." Students need to be out in the wilderness for four days and three nights.

* Possible skills listed on the DofE website include: taxidermy, (underwater) basket weaving, dowsing and divining, snail farming, historical period re-enacting, and snack pimping. What is snack pimping? How does one become a snack pimp? Can I be a snack pimp?

Finally, students aiming for the gold DofE need to complete a residential requirement, which means that they have to be away from home for five days and four nights (presumably to prepare them for university life). The course website encourages students to participate in residential experiences that promote service (like "rebuilding a school roof in Lesotho"), learning (like "improving your Spanish language skills on a course in Madrid"), activities (like "going white water rafting in New Zealand past glaciers and mountains"), and environment and conservation (like "doing dry stone walling in the West Tyne Valley in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall"). Again, there's an opportunity board on the website that connects students with possible residential opportunities. Clicking on the board this afternoon, I found an opportunity being advertised to create a Viking performance in the Lake District. That's right. A Viking performance. Tell me that you don't want to start your Duke of Edinburgh's Award journey RIGHT. NOW.

While some components of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award might seem expensive (like the residential requirement), I scanned the opportunity board and found that most of the residencies are located right here in the UK and cost about £300. You can find less expensive ones (usually on nature preserves) or more expensive ones (usually abroad). However, you don't need to be "minted," as the British might say, to receive your gold DofE. Although I think being "skint" might be a bit prohibitive. Luckily, registration for the DofE only costs £20-27 depending on your award level.

Awards in the UK aren't just limited to the DofE. There are other programs like the Arts Awards and the Dynamic Youth Awards. The Arts Awards, especially at the higher levels, emphasize designing and leading your own arts project. The Dynamic Youth Awards (which seem to be only available in Scotland) are for students ages 10+ and require a minimum of five hours of work. I like the Dynamic Youth Awards because everyone has five free hours in their schedule and since there are so many free enrichment programs available for young adults, it makes the award achievable, even for students who aren't necessarily "all-stars" in their schools or who come from low-income communities. Essentially, the Dynamic Youth Awards reward students just for trying out a new extracurricular activity or exploring an academic interest. It dangles awards in front of students to help them become more well-rounded or to help them discover interests that could lead them down a career path. And we know that dangling awards works. Just look at Texas. (If you don't know anything yet about Texas's one-act festival, it's the competition that has turned theatre education into a cornerstone of the Texas education system. Seriously. I know that blue states might be reluctant to ask their red state neighbors for advice on the arts -- but Texas, Florida, and Georgia are leading the pack in theatre education. We need to be adapting their best practices all across the US.)

Find below the poster for the Arts Awards' Journey Gold Level and the Challenge Sheet for the Dynamic Youth Award. I first saw the Arts Award poster hanging on the walls at Toonspeak and, in fact, Toonspeak will be engaging in a partnership program with Youth Theatre Scotland next year to help bring these awards opportunities to even more low-income communities. These awards opportunities are great for what the National Theatre of Scotland's LEARN Department calls "sign posting." Students who've finished an enrichment program (like a LEARN Department production) will be "sign posted" towards another activity that will help them continue their learning. That might be a structured degree or training program, an internship or part-time employment position, or an awards opportunity that will encourage them to pursue their interest further. For the Dynamic Youth Awards, students complete a Challenge Sheet throughout their experience. The Challenge Sheet teaches and reinforces basic "soft skills" that students are going to need to succeed at university and in the workplace: action planning, record keeping, and peer assessment. It's a basic form -- but then again, remember that the Dynamic Youth Award's five-hour requirement is one of the reasons why it's so easy to get students to participate in the program. As previously mentioned, I'm strongly in favor of all of these awards schemes. I think that the students that I've taught in NYC public and charter schools would have benefited greatly from a structured program encouraging them to go out and discover what interests them. I'll always remember one parent-teacher conference in which I asked a parent what her child's hobbies were. She told me that her child likes to watch TV. I feel that, if we had programs like the Arts Awards or the Dynamic Youth Awards in the US, I could have said to that parent: "How about signing your student up for a three-week film production course? She'll get her Dynamic Youth Award!" It also might encourage schools and teachers to offer more short-term "taster" extracurricular programs.


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