The Reward Economy

It’s not just parents, but also many classroom teachers, who have sought to apply basic behaviourism to control and direct children’s behaviour in the direction they want. These days there are even Apps like Class Dojo that exist specifically for this purpose.

In the past I’ve written about New York educator, Alfie Kohn and his arguments against this approach, particularly those set out in his book ‘Punished By Rewards’. Here’s a good article that sets out the problems and why use of rewards can so often backfire in quite simple terms;

The Atlantic – The Dangers Of Using a Sticker Chart To Teach Kids Good Behaviour

The article draws quite extensively on the writings and work of Dan Ariely, professor at Duke University. When social norms and economic norms come together, the economic norms tend to win out thereby diminishing the likelihood of behaviour that is done for the right reasons socially.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that in an ever more cluttered life, parents and teachers are looking for the quick and easy routes to the outcomes they want. Sticker charts and other behaviour management tools have appeared to offer that as they get results and they get them in quite short time. However, as the article highlights, this can be at a heavy price in the longer term. If it results in children who have less empathy, less inclination to do anything for others without looking for an extrinsic reward, then we do a massive disservice to society.

I believe empathy grows most out of reflection and consideration of the kinds of reciprocity that all can value in their environment. For children to reflect on such things far more effective tools are open discussion through such things as ‘circle time’. When you take the longer, harder route, will children make mistakes? Will they forget or have lapses when they act in ways that are inappropriate?

Yes, of course? However, this is exactly the kind of struggle and falure that i highlighted in yesterday’s article. We need to accept that failure is necessary and a valuable constituent part of learning. Right first time and every time when manipulated through behavioural manipulation will rarely lead to the development of positive social skills that translate across environments and situations.

Society or Education – Which to Change First?

I’ve shared a number of articles in the past about the ways in which modern education is failing to rid itself of the ‘industrial model’ mindset, with the result that it is poorly serving today’s young people who need to be equipped with very different skills and competencies if they are to excel in the fast changing, technological age of the Twenty First Century.

Here’s a very thought-provoking article from Mindshift, that quotes extensively from the work of John Abbott, Director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative. So many of the opinions he expresses in the article strike a chord with me and reflect issues and concerns that have been very much in my mind. Particularly, Abbott stresses that conventional schooling is not enabling young people to develop the transferable, higher-order thinking skills that they need to become true lifelong learners.

On one point I disagree with the conclusions in the article. It’s right to point out that the problems in schools cannot be looked at in isolation from the challenges in the rest of society. As technology changes the world in fundamental ways, we have options and choices about what kind of society we want to have (and therefore what education will prepare us for it). However, to suggest that the changes in society must happen forst, and then educators will adjust later is to risk leaving a generation of young people to flounder without the skills and equipment to operate effectively in the changing world. I believe those of us in education have to have the courage to look in to the future and reshape the education that will prepare young people. We cannot necessarily know what choices the world is going to make in terms of the shaping of society. However, if we help young people NOW to develop greater independence, interdependence, resilience and flexibility then they will be more empowered to deal with whatever the future holds. Sometimes I fear that too many of my peers use lack of certainty as their primary excuse for not bringing real meaningful changes in the education arena.

There was a particular sentence in the article that really stood out to me – “Adults who feel hard-pressed to predict or control their own destinies, and who feel confused about the “big issues of life,” Abbott notes, are less willing to give children the time and space they need to shape their own futures.” I read this in the context of both educators and parents. There’s no doubt that we see such sentiments from some parents at times. The more uncertain they become about their own lives and feel like so much flotsam tossed on a tumultuous sea, so they seek to control more and more aspects of their children’s lives. In plain terms – it doesn’t work! Our children need courageous parents working in collaboration with courageous educators.

Learning to Love Learning

I’ve long been a fan of Dan Pink’s writing, so had already made a mental note a couple of weeks ago that he had a new book out that needed to be added to my ‘To be read’ list. So I was even happier when I came across this article that highlights that education gets its due attention in the book.

Mindshift Article – Dan Pink: How Teachers Can Sell Love of Learning

As someone who drifted through a large part of my own school education disengaged, the issue of engagement is one that has motivated me over many years. Also, I’ve long held the view that our school systems are way too driven by external motivation. At times it really seems like both teachers and parents believe that, left to their own choices, children couldn’t possibly be curious or motivated to learn ‘the right stuff’, so there’s no choice but to coerce them along the way with various combinations of sticks and carrots. To many, the only thing to differentiate progressive child-centric more nurturing education is more of the latter and less ‘stick’.

When I see a child for whom the highlight of their day was a star written on the back of their hand, or a smiley sticker, it doesn’t fill me with joy. Rather, it makes me fearful that schools continue to produce ‘pleasers’, young people trained in the ways of blind obedience, compliance and conformity – I don’t believe this is how leaders are made, or creative thinkers. That a few of these still manage to emerge from the system is despite and not because of. We need to be developing our education systems in ways that actually develop genuine personalisation, linking learning for the individual pupil to their real world, to things that interest them and in which they will be naturally engaged and motivated to learn.

We have a long road ahead, but it’s a fascinating challenge.

Tough Being a Parent

‘Command and control’ parenting throught the use of extrinsic motivation (sticks and carrots) is explored in this editorial debate from today’s New York Times;

New York Times – Room for Debate – Should You Bribe Your Kids?

Whilst it’s quite a light-hearted article and somewhat amusing I was left with two thoughts that meant i wasn’t wholly comfortable with the viewpoint of either of the writers.

Firstly, the article carries no acknowledgement of the needs, clearly identified through research with both children and adults, for intrinsic motivation to drive success in life. If every child is growing up with ‘bribing’ parents, should we be surprised if we finish up with an adult population that looks for instant and immediate material gratification as a necessary quid pro quo for every piece of effort extended? Whilst, as one of the writers acknowledges, that might solve her short term issues and give her an easier life, is she short changing her children by failing to invest adequate effort in the long term task of developing internal motivation to do what is right and necessary because one can make the mental connections between ‘doing what it takes now’ and ‘having what i want later’?

My second concern is that if parents are engaging in ‘mass bribery’ to weather the daily challenges of parenting – where does that leave the other people who play an important part in the lives of those children – the educators? If a child is in the habit of linking agreement to do something with some form of immediate gratification in the form of a bribe, then how are educators supposed to effectively fulfil their roles? They don’t necessarily have a pool of resources to keep handing out to children in return for them simply doing what they’re supposed to do – or worse, for not making our lives too difficult!

So, what do you think? Am I being too idealistic? Do you feel that bribing is an OK short-term fix for an easy life that doesn’t really do any harm? I’m really keen to hear people’s views on this. I may have mine, but after reading this article i fear i might be in a small (and dwindling) minority!

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