21 September 2007

Welcome Back to School! Here's Your Packet of Destructive Forces

Kids have been in school for weeks now. If this is their first time, they likely left home full of excitement, their eyes aglow with expectancy. Given it is mid-September, they may already be disillusioned with the experience, as is cce's darling daughter.

We all are born with intrinsic motivation. A baby doesn't need the reward of strained carrots to learn how to crawl or talk. In fact, at no stage of our life do we learn more quickly than at this one - transformed from nearly comatose bundle to bouncing, running, jabbering person in just a couple of years.


But intrinsic motivation is gradually destroyed by a series of destructive forces encountered at school and work. Children are given incentives to learn - gold stars and A's. Although there is no evidence that such incentives actually enhance learning, there is lots of evidence that such incentives dissuade children from learning. Short term, the inducement of a reward makes a child do more of the rewarded activity. Longer term, such inducements actually convince children that, sans inducements, this activity is not worth doing. (Imagine a child who spoke whenever his mother smiled and said, "Good boy! You can talk!" but talked only for such rewards. Presumably, we teach activities we'd like people to continue doing.) One thing that children learn is that learning is not worth doing for its own sake - a ludicrious conclusion akin to concluding that eating, sleeping, or hugging is not worth doing unless we're rewarded for it. Learning is intrinsic to being human and it takes an elaborate and medieval educational philosophy to change this.

Worse, grades and rankings in school further the damage. It has always been - and will always be - true that there are variations in intelligence, learning styles and the speed of learning in any group. Nothing we can do will end such variation. Bad managers latch onto this inevitability as if it matters - as if they can do something about it. They spend all their energy trying to codify rankings, tweaking the standings, focusing on who is excellent and who is merely good. Such effort is proof that they lack the simplest understanding of systems and human psychology. (Or, to be fair, are teachers or supervisors forced by their system to engage in these rituals that will someday be written about with the same disbelief we use to write about rain dances or drowning witches.) The more people focus on rewards and rankings, the less they focus on the tasks we're rewarding them for doing. Again, repeated studies have shown that such rankings make people less creative and result in lower quality work. People who are distracted do not do their best work.

Good managers understand that there will be variation but focus on the overall system. Sure, Ariela did better at math than Sam. So what. Look at the distribution for the entire class and look for ways to move that upwards. Maybe the introduction of new methods will move the curve upwards. (And if you use hands on methods instead of verbal ones, you may find that Sam is suddenly doing better than Ariela. Ranking is largely a function of method and task. Differ the methods or task and a very different ranking emerges.)

Great managers understand that tapping intrinsic motivation is much better than forcing extrinsic motivation.

If you have children forced into such a system, coach them through this. This is a game they have to play, but one that they should understand as a game with perverse rules. If you are a policy maker, work to lessen the insistence on grades, rankings, and even rewards. No matter who you are, read or listen to Alfie Kohn. (I'd recommend W. Edwards Deming but for all his genius, he was never terribly accessible.) Kohn has the audacity to actually point to research, rather than folk lore, and point out that the emperor of education has no clothes. Quite simply, research does not support current methods - a sorry fact that should could continue in no other domain but this: NASA, the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, the EPA would never continue to get funding were they to so thumb their noses at empirical data. Alas, failures in methodology are merely blamed on the children who obviously are not trying hard enough.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This sounds very much like an argument in support of the Maria Montessori Method of teaching,

She was always of the belief that a
teacher’s role is unobtrusive; and that children should actively participate in learning
(unlike CCE's G's teacher’s role as dominant and active; while the child is a passive participant)

Montessori encouraged children to teach, collaborate, and help each other
Learning was reinforced internally through child’s own repetition of activity, internal feelings of success and repetition

She was completely against
learning that was reinforced externally by rewards, discouragements.

She was definitely on to something.

~chesca

Ron Davison said...

Chesca (xSD),
Exactly! Sandi is Montessori trained - something she did at Deming's recommendation to her.

David said...

Gee Ron, now that I'm unemployed for all time I can read your site every day and may actually learn something. Do I get an A? In the midst of my undergraduate turmoil days at UCLA a prof teaching Art Appreciation told us the first day of class, "Good, you're all here. If you come every day you get a B. If you listen and show interest you get an A. That's the last time I want to talk about grades." Need I say I learned more about art from him than I did about (fitb) from any number of conventional profs. Is it too late for me to read Kohn? How about my 17 year grandson who is bombing in school? He needs inspiration.

David said...

Post Script: I'd like to believe that about the Pentagon but it's not true across the board.

cce said...

Thanks for taking up the education torch today. As you know, it's on my mind.
I distinctly remember peers being bribed by their parents to get good grades. The rewards for not flunking trig ranged from brand new cars to a couple hundred dollars. While my parents didn't pay for grades, they did recognize that the peer group dictates what children will or won't achieve come middle school and beyond. They removed me from a school setting that was plagued by a pervasive perception that it just wasn't cool to be smart. Once in an academic setting where learning and curiosity were the norm not the exception, things began to turn around for me. I wonder if this "it's not cool to get good grades" thing is not the single most significant thing that prevents all children from just naturally doing their best. How does a thirteen year old find the bravery and foresight to swim upstream in a river of dullards and drunks?

Dave said...

I'm not sure it's come up at my place, or in one of my comments at your place; but, I have a degree in education, though long ago, and far away.

I love this post. My thought has always been that, regardless of the child, if you can instill a love of, I'm not sure which comes first, thinking and reading, you can't do much harm after that. The child is then internally motivated. This idea of course doesn't cover all kids in all situations; but, I think for most, it holds true.

Ron Davison said...

David,
17 is not too late to get on track. I'd suggest a number of resources besides Kohn: you might want to look at something like SuperCamp, for instance. Could be a better investment than college at this stage. And, yes, the Pentagon isn't all reason and light - Rumsfeld ran it for years.

cce,
yep - teenagers are generally more influenced by peers than authority figures - or at least as influenced. Need to reinforce the love of learning before those disruptive hormones kick in. Thanks for inspiring this post, and letting me vent on an important to me topic.

Dave,
You're a teacher? That explains, in part, the blog - the love of learning advances into a love of teaching in some. And I agree, love of learning is not a panacea, but it's a whole lot closer to it than what we have now. Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks.

Daryl said...

I believe in intrinsic motivation but that said, since achieving a goal almost always requires some sort of quid pro quo (for money/favors/etc..) with time I have become more OK with providing rewards.