Monday, August 6, 2012

What Makes Johnny (and Charmaine, and. . .) Run? Of Carrots, Sticks, and Education

One Way To Motivate

Motivation is a rather intriguing topic in the world of education, particularly these days, given all the expert opinions the corporate world is offering to or more often blatantly imposing upon public schools, districts, administrators, parents, and children. Of course, teachers themselves are always seeking guidance from more experienced and/or successful educators on how to get kids to behave and do what is demanded and expected of them in and out of class.

On July 31, 2012, writing on her Secondary Education page, Melissa Kelly tried to address the question of how to motivate students when she wrote:
One way to motivate students both behaviorally and academically is to reward them in various ways. I've created a list of ten ways that you can reward middle and high school students. Enjoy!
Here is the list of motivators Ms. Kelly recommended (I will only reproduce their names, not the details, here; click on the link for the whole thing:

1) Sit where you want for the day;
2) Class party;
3) Homework pass;
4) Games day;
5) Extra credit;
6) Small rewards;
7) Water day;
8) Extra computer time;
9) Popcorn party;
10) Take care of the class pet.

Before continuing, I need to make clear that the above list is offered to secondary teachers. In some ways, that's surprising, but I suspect that a very large number of teachers will be familiar with most or all of them, regardless of the grade band in which they teach.

I won't comment on most of these (and didn't remark directly on any of them on her blog), but must here object in particular to the third one. What message does it send to kids about homework if one is rewarded by not having to do it? Please note, I'm not suggesting that homework is something I favor, but merely that it speaks volumes to what even teachers believe about it if they consider it a motivator to give kids a free pass from doing it. If the message of that isn't, "I know I tell you all the time that homework is vital for doing well, and I require that you do it to pass (hence, I give marks for it), I've been lying, because I'm willing to let you get out of doing it, or at least some of you, as a bribe for doing something else I want you to do. So don't believe what I said about homework. Except pretend you do. And you can certainly trust the truth and sincerity of the OTHER things I tell you," then I don't know what it IS saying in reality.

In any event, here is the initial comment I DID leave:
I thought learning and doing meaningful work were their own reward. Why would students need to be bribed into participating in lessons that addressed their inborn needs to make sense of their world? Of course, if the lessons are irrelevent drudgery, bunches ‘o facts disconnected from anything that matters, even obliquely, to the students, I can well-understand the need to provide extrinsic motivation in the form of bribery.
Several replies followed, two of which are worth copying here:
1) Kathleen Bailey says:

Mr. Goldberg [sic], I don’t think you are a teacher. We work so hard to keep the students engaged in learning, to think well of themselves before, during, and after the learning process….but sometimes just a little reward can make a difference. It’s a visual something…I got this sticker because I worked hard to learn; it’s a reminder every time they see it. Teachers, before so many laws about nutrition came into our classrooms, used to be shameless and happy to dispense candy for learning. I just want them to learn and I don’t mind spending my hard earned cash for little prizes. I do not have to do it that often, but I don’t mind a bit. Movie day for weeks and weeks of work on a research paper is a good thing!

2) James Clark says:

With all due respect to Ms. Baily, Mr Goldberg [sic] is correct. I’m a teacher, and I know. You, as a teacher, must feel the bigger issue is that we are forced to bully kids into a simplistic understandings that can boiled down to a multiple choice test. Through an ignorant allegiance to standardized test scores we have a we have sneak love of learning in between preparation for quizzes. To you Mr Goldberg [sic] I would add that I use motivators of every kind. However, the bigger issue is high stakes testing and teacher bullying. You need to tell your principal today (call… I’m he or she is there) and say that you (and all your friends as well perhaps?) want standardized testing to stop. Teachers should be allowed to do what they signed up for… teach and inspire.

And those led me to write what follows:

I appreciate the responses. For what it's worth, I've been in education since 1973. I've taught at the high school level, worked as a field supervisor for secondary and elementary teachers for the Univ. of Michigan, done research in middle school math classrooms, been an elementary and secondary math coach, and done professional development work with K-12 teachers in mathematics. I've also taught math content and methods courses for elementary and secondary teachers at several colleges and universities, and been a mathematics instructor at community colleges in NYC and Michigan.

So yes, I'm a teacher. And I'm also a staunch critic of high-stakes standardized tests.

But I think there's a key point that may have been overlooked, one I intended but didn't make explicit: if you have to bribe/reward kids, there's something wrong. Whether it's that outside forces (e.g., NCLB, Race to the Top, the Common Core) or more internal/local ones (principals, departments,  districts,etc.) that push bad curriculum and "standards" into the classroom, or whether teachers simply aren't asking themselves what actually matters to kids (and please, I'm neither stupid - my son is 17 - nor cynical: kids WANT the world to make sense, and it's up to educators to help them do so. But we mostly don't for a host of reasons.

If you could teach any relevant content you wished, it would behoove you to frame your curriculum around what kids want to know to make sense of their world. Every "subject" is relevant in that regard, at least potentially. We could, if we thought about it, worked with other teachers and curriculum specialists in an inter-disciplinary way, construct units and lessons that addressed what kids want to know. And they DO want to know.

But if you're a secondary teacher, chances are enormous that many if not most of your students are already ruined for learning by the time they reach your classroom. They've been "schooled" to only care about grades, not learning, IF they even care about those. A few may actually want to know things for their own reasons outside the context of the school game, but they aren't the way they are because of some inherent flaw. Rather, we taught them to be that way from early on, and they learned the lessons we taught only too well. Early elementary kids are full of energy and curiosity and life, eager to learn for the most part. By third or fourth grade, much of that has been bent by well-meaning teachers and a system that corrupts everyone.

Please consider how YOU as a teacher have been corrupted by a carrot-and-stick system. It's more blatant now than it's been since unions first arose to make things more fair for professional educators: the new education "reformers" (or as I call them, deformers) are playing a bunch of the same silly "motivational" games with teachers that many teachers believe they must play with their students. And few experienced teachers LIKE the games that are being played with them now, but fail to make the connection between what they do to students (or feel they MUST do) and what the for-profit education deformers are doing to teachers.

It's ALMOST ironic.

I want to close by mentioning several people whose work; as well as public and private writing, speaking and thought have been deeply influential on what I've had to say here: A.S. Neil, Tim Pitkin, Wilhelm Reich, Alfie Kohn, Lynn Stoddard, and Marion Brady. I thank all of them for their humane, child-centered ideas about education and children.

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