Motivation and Incentives

by Matthew Koslowski on April 23, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” by Amanda Ripley, TIME Magazine, Volume 175, Number 15 (April 19, 2010)
On the Surprising Science of Motivation by Dan Pink, TED
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
 

I stopped dead as I looked at the magazine racks in my local Barnes&Noble about two weeks ago. On the cover, a little girl was sitting at a desk in front of stacks of cash, with bills falling from the desktop to the floor. The title asked: Should Schools Bribe Kids?

I felt revulsion.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards was one of the first books on education that I read. Although Kohn’s book focuses strongly on the effect of rewards and incentives in the rearing of children, he also discusses incentives in the workplace. His arguments were compelling and I could see their relevance in my own life. As I wrote in “Racing to the Test”, my pay-for-performance incentive plan doesn’t motivate me.

After reading Alfie Kohn’s work, I saw Dan Pink’s TED Lecture On the Surprising Science of Motivation. His work was congruent with the work of Kohn, though I didn’t see the nuances at first. I’ve watched the video perhaps four or five times now. At first, I focused on his arguments that incentives inhibit creative thinking. Pink also talks about how incentives actually boost performance for production of unit-driven tasks, such as Adam Smith’s example of creating pins or in the reading of a number of books.

Even with these two works in mind, I bought the TIME Magazine. I hoped to find that the work of the economist was one more piece of evidence supporting my conclusions.

The article describes four experiments designed by Roland Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist who wanted to test market forces in learning. The experiments were:

  • in New York City, paying fourth- and seventh-graders for earning higher test scores;
  • in Washington, D.C., paying sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for certain behaviors, such as attendance;
  • in Chicago, paying ninth-graders for earning As, Bs, and Cs;
  • and, in Dallas, paying second-graders for each book they read.

And my predictions were mostly right. I thought they would all be failures, but one surprised me.

The schools with pay for performance did boost some test scores but not consistently. And the improved performance on specific tests did not translate to improved performance on the national tests that determine America’s international standing in education. If I were to pay you — well, most of you — right now to solve a second order differential equation, most of you could not do it because most of you have never learned to solve second order differential equations. Paying a student to get a better grade without teaching the student the techniques of how to get a better grade is much the same.

But the one program that seemed to have the most effect was paying second-graders for each book they read. The students earned their money after taking a short quiz on the book. I balked, thinking that such a program would kill a child’s natural inclination to read. Alfie Kohn makes a strong argument for incentives killing internal motivation. He describes a reading incentive program they had when I was a kid. After reading so many books, a child can earn a pizza from Pizza Hut.

And then I remembered something. Something very important that I had forgotten while reading Alfie Kohn’s book. I participated in that Pizza Hut program. I studied literature in high school and college; I love to read for pleasure; and I am well on my way to becoming an English teacher.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to these program after all.

* * *

PS: You would think Dan Pink was paying me, considering how often I have mentioned him on Literature&Literacy. He’s not, but I like his areas of interest and research. Though I wouldn’t mind if he were to pay me.

Can we teach teachers?

by Matthew Koslowski on March 11, 2010
in Anecdotes

While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research [Jonah Rockoff, economist at Columbia University] can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?
–From “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green, The New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2010.

When I first read the above in The New York Times Magazine, I was shocked. This economist questions if we can teach people to be successful teachers.

While I believe that there are natural limits to each person’s ability, I believe that education and training help people increase their natural strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Being able to teach someone something requires more than just knowledge, it requires the ability to communicate that knowledge. Education and training in methods can help teachers acquire the ability to communicate their knowledge.

Imagine that instead of providing hands-on training to Emergency Medical Technicians we taught them only the theoretical concepts behind the techniques. They learn anatomy, biology and some chemistry; they discuss the theory and the history of the techniques; but they are never taught the techniques themselves. Then, in the field, the technician does not know how provide CPR and someone dies.

In this scenario, would an economist question whether teaching particular techniques and methods in addition to academic knowledge was worth the money?

If you think my scenario sounds far-fetched, please read the following quote. In 2006, Arthur Levine, a former president of Teacher College at Columbia University, wrote:

“Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.”
–Arthur Levine, quoted in “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green, The New York Times Magazine

Despite these two quotes, the article “Building a Better Teacher” focuses on Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools and his research into what makes good and great teachers. He systematically surveyed and videotaped teachers who students consistently scored well year after year. From his research, he was able to distill many techniques that he found the best teachers employed.

Mr. Lemov’s work shows that research is being done into whether teacher training can help improve educational outcomes. The article convinced me that it is possible to improve communication of ideas using techniques and methods that are not currently a standard part of teacher education.

Future teachers and their future students will be best served by the changing focus of teacher training institutes from high level, abstract pedagogical theory to on-the-ground, concrete teaching methods.

Too Much Inspiration

by Matthew Koslowski on February 24, 2010
in Anecdotes

Last night, I saw Jonathan Kozol give this year’s inaugural lecture of the Civic Discourse Series, a joint venture of Suffolk University and the Boston Athenaeum.

A whirlwind of thoughts is twirling through my head, picking up other ideas along the way.

I found his speech was breathtaking. When it came to asking questions, although I was able to think of a question, there was so much to ask. I’m still thinking about it and still thinking of questions I want to ask.

And I want to do justice to his lecture. So, tomorrow I’ll publish a longer piece on it. Subscribe by email to get tomorrow’s essay emailed to you.

No Fixed Stars: Thoughts on I.Q. Testing

by Matthew Koslowski on February 3, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, Ph.D., with Lou Aronica
Alfred Binet, Wikipedia
Lewis Terman, Wikipedia
 

I have always been aware of ideas of intelligence and, therefore, ideas of Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.).

Unless you count a silly Internet test I took in college, I have never taken an I.Q. test. Often I have wondered what my I.Q. was, assuming as I did that I.Q. was a valid measure of intelligence. Since I did well in my scholastic subjects, I thought I would score high on an I.Q. test and I wanted in my insecurity about my own talents an objective verification of what I wanted to believe about myself but doubted.

When I moved to Ohio for college, I learned from friends that administering I.Q. tests is routine procedure in Ohio. I felt cheated then that Massachusetts did not do the same.

Now, however, having read more about the history of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, I am thankful not to have had my I.Q. measured in this way.

Read more..

Finding the Ferry-way

by Matthew Koslowski on January 13, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

The Art of Sinking in Poetry by Alexander Pope
The Epistles of Horace: Bilingual Edition (David Ferry, trans.)
The Odes of Horace: Bilingual Edition (David Ferry, trans.)
“For poet, classics translate into success” by David Mehegan, The Boston Globe, July 7, 2005
 

The other day I found a copy of Alexander Pope’s The Art of Sinking in Poetry in Barnes&Noble. As I began to read it, I began to think of Horace’s “Ars Poetica”, how long it had been since I had read it, and thought about when it began to take on a special meaning for me.

I felt myself floating after finishing my undergraduate degree.

I found myself fighting against ideas that I did not want to accept. But I did not then have the strength to put them down.

I still don’t.

Then one day I was reading The Boston Globe — only good things come from reading The Boston Globe — when I came across a story about a translator trying to revive the classics of ancient Roman poet Horace.

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