13 March 2009

Learning Isn't Its Own Reward

Part of my EdD work involves student motivation, so I am always keen to see what the media at large is reporting in this area. Seems like over the last year, there have been a few articles describing incentive programs for grades. I am immediately distrustful of such programs. I don't think we can foster of a love of learning in students by substituting a love of "stuff," such as money or stickers. I also think that these programs either confuse or overgeneralize what we know about positive reinforcement. We can change the behaviors of all kinds of animals (including ourselves) through the use of rewards. If you need a kid to remember to raise his hand before asking a question or follow the rules for lining up at lunch, a rewards system will do that. These kinds of behaviors work really well within a rewards system. And while you can argue that learning of all sorts has a behavioral basis, critical thinking and analysis don't really fall into the simple "peck the dot and get a peanut" category. This is where I think rewards systems for student learning fall down.

The New York Times recently put Rewards for Students Under a Microscope. They note several studies that show that rewards based systems only result in short-term gains...not long term or permanent changes in students.

However, in today's testing and dropout accountability environment, I'm wondering how many schools won't see a downside in the lack of long-term change. If I just need to show some impact for the current year, what do I care if kids lose interest in a few weeks? Maybe I just get them pumped up for the testing...or stay in school long enough to not count as a dropout...and that's all I need. Because under NCLB, I'm trying to get rewards and avoid punishment, too, only at a much larger scale. I don't necessarily have to learn as a system, I just have to jump the hoops. Perhaps that's all I need kids to do, too. Does it matter than we don't really get anything from the experience?

I think it does matter, but this is a systemic issue. NCLB has its heart in the right place in terms of student equity, but its bludgeoning of "underperforming" schools is just plain wrong. In some ways, it has made it okay for schools to treat their students in the same manner. Can we hope to make learning its own reward for kids when we value trinkets?


Roger Sweeny said...

I find it fascinating when people use an argument in one context that they would reject in another.

We say, "Oh, isn't it a shame that when school systems lay people off, good young teachers are fired and less-than-stellar teachers are kept because we fire by seniority. We should be keeping the best and letting the worst go." But we also say, "You know, though merit pay sounds like a good idea, there is just no way of coming up with a fair system for determining 'merit.' So we shouldn't waste time and money trying to come up with a merit pay system."

But the fact that we have deliberately refused to try to come up with a merit system means we have no way of determining who is a "better" teacher when the work force has to be reduced. Similarly, if we do come up with a system for determining who is most deserving to be kept, that system will be shouting, "Use me to determine pay."

We worry that a system of rewards will give us results that seem good in the short run but that may have little positive long-term effect.

Yet we don't see the similar problems with the existing "assess at the end of a unit" system. Students get grades on a test or report or project. Then it's over and they can forget. They have jumped through a hoop but they needn't have make any permanent addition to their mental furniture.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

It takes good teachers and exciting, engaging classes to light up that part of the brain that gives us pleasure while learning.

I fully agree that the extrinsic reward route is a dead end.

Roger Sweeny said...

It takes good teachers and exciting, engaging classes to light up that part of the brain that gives us pleasure while learning.

You are, of course. right. But what is exciting and engaging to one person may not be to another. A presentation on Hannah Montana that my ninth graders found fascinating would probably not stimulate any of my pleasure centers. A presentation on how convection works might do the same to them. Even if the presenter had lots of energy, used examples that came from the students' lives, demonstrated what was happening, and tried to involve them.

Much of what schools are required to teach are things that teenagers are not inherently interested in. We simply can't be exciting and engaging in a lot of things we have to do. Because "exciting" and "engaging" are not determined by us. They are determined by how our students react.

No doubt this is one reason almost all schools use those traditional extrinsic rewards, grades--and that big reward if you get enough acceptable grades, a diploma.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Roger, engagement can be found without pandering to contemporary teen culture.

A personable teacher, who has an activity of 60-90 seconds (or longer) every 7-10 minutes of a class will be cruising along and the period is gone before the kids know it. And they report, they "had fun."

I'm not talking out of my armpit here, or blowing the horn of egotism. My students regularly reported, once I got skilled enough, that they didn't know how US History (eighth grade) could go by in a flash every day.

It can be done, regardless of content.