Monday, February 11, 2013

"Thatta Boy" Better Than Cash?

I had to wait for it, but my twelve-year old finally started a real conversation with me about school work. He had written a persuasive essay about whether or not students should get paid for good grades. He asked me to read his draft. Naturally I was quite interested. He argued the con, citing the incentive to cheat. We talked about that. Cheating is bad, he thought, an unintended consequence of paying for grades that detours kids around the purpose of school. Getting paid for grades puts the emphasis on the wrong thing, I thought, namely getting a high grade instead of learning something new. If grades or for that matter test scores are what we care about, then why not utilize any means at our disposal for getting good grades or high test scores? In his notes he held the trump card that effectively combined our two points of view. It was a quote he found from a 2008 editorial by Diane Ravitch on In it she contrasts the intrinsic motivation of those in India to the extrinsic motivation of Americans, and concludes: "Does the future belong to those who struggle to better themselves, make sacrifices to do so and work hard? Or to those who must be cajoled and bribed to learn anything at all?" 

If you scour the internet (as I have just done) to try and decide the issue you will find ample support that paying kids to get good grades is a bad idea. The arguments boil down to this: young people need to develop the intrinsic motivation to learn. While I agree, I also sense a kind of moral undercurrent. I think people have a gut reaction about paying kids for grades -- that it is wrong because kids ought to be pursuing education for loftier reasons.

But think about this more deeply. What else (and I'm talking to everyone EXCEPT the student) have you got to offer? If you are trying to get a kid to do something he wouldn't do on his own (and what else would be the point of education?), what kind of leverage do you have? Isn't anything you offer a reward of some kind -- and not so different from offering money? Most all schools assign grades. How are grades different from monetary rewards? Many families probably do the math anyway, estimating the added (monetary) value to future careers of good grades now. 

Perhaps the most innocuous reward is attention of some kind from the teacher. Need a chart of rewarding phrases? Here's a link to 275 ways to say "good job!" If kids do it so that you'll say "good job" or some variant, how is that different from doing it so you'll give them 10 cents? What do we really mean by "intrinsic motivation?" The idea seems easy: wanting to do something without the need for any external reward, but what does that mean? Don't we ultimately do everything for something? You might like to read for its own sake, but doesn't that just mean that you get a little boost of some pleasure chemical in your brain when you read? Meaning that you still do the activity for a reward -- it just happens to be a chemical reward. Cash rewards come from "outside," but isn't cash ultimately convertible to deeply intrinsic interests -- meaning kids can spend cash on things of value to them?

What do you think?


  1. Diane Ravitch expresses admiration for the Darwinian environment for education that exists in India where competition for a scarce resource is motivating indeed, especially given the consequences of failure in that part of the world. No doubt, it can focus the mind.

    Ravitch asks, "Does the future belong to those who struggle to better themselves, make sacrifices to do so and work hard? Or to those who must be cajoled and bribed to learn anything at all?" Her question reveals an ideological divide. Another vision for the future would be to decrease poverty starvation and human suffering by whatever strategy is effective.

    Of course, Ms. Ravitch is really just advocating an environment which naturally incentivizes self-initiative. We can all get behind that, because it works. But natural selection, the indisputably successful force of nature, also has brutal consequences for the ones who don't or can't compete.

    One trait that must have some selective advantage is the ability to ignore suffering of others. Those of us with bleeding hearts can easily become bogged down trying to solve problems that have no resolution. But evolution has also resulted in human culture and civilization, which, especially in times of prosperity, call us to comfort each other in times of need, and love your neighbor as yourself.

  2. Well said. I don't think "bleeding hearts" have to be trained that way, though. Most of us have a very natural predisposition to feel for and to help others -- a disposition that must have been advantageous to our ancestors. I find myself needing to cultivate the toughness required so as not to fall into the trap of creating depedency.

  3. To reduce the foundations of human behavior, motivation, emotions to brain chemicals such as dopamine is a step or two in the direction of existential nihilism, the idea that life is without objective intrinsic value. I can't present a strong rebuttal to this, but a note of caution may be in order.

    It seems that another selective advantage that served our ancestors, was the knack for believing certain things that were not true even in the face of contrary evidence. Superstition, myth, denial --we seem to need these to keep life meaningful and worth soldiering on in the face of brutal reality.

    So we do make important distinctions between types of motivation. For example, we question the depth and authenticity of a personal relationship based on material goods. We place a higher value on mutual loving relationships, and people who strive for excellence through what we call intrinsic motivation. As you noted, the boundaries are fuzzy, but most of the time, we needn't examine them too carefully.

  4. I certainly see what you mean -- and it does seem that some people remain quite good at maintaining cherished delusions. I'm not so good at it (and neither are you) which is why we are having this discussion! Of course, natural selection will solve the problem of too much nihilism one way or the other -- whether through propagating ignorance or finding meaning even in the face of brutal natural facts.

    That came across a bit harsh, so here is a pleasant story (with a catch) that my Dad told me yesterday. A woman he knows through folk dancing has epilepsy. So she has a service dog with her who is trained to alert her to imminent seizures. The dog is so adorable that the woman has to inform people to please not interact with the dog while the dog is on duty. About 30 minutes prior to a seizure the dog will begin to whine and paw to gain the woman's attention. This gives the woman a chance to move to an appropriate place. The woman takes very good care of the dog, of course, including treats for correctly anticipating a seizure. Isn't that wonderful relationship? Well, that's the catch. If you ask the woman, she will tell you the dog doesn't do it "for her," but because the dog gets a treat!

    As you say, Fran, we would place a higher value on the relationship between this woman and her dog if we felt that the she and the dog just cared about each other and so would do their part with or without the benefits of the relationship. But this is a service dog selected and trained for just this role. But wouldn't we feel warm and fuzzy if these two just grew to love each other?

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  6. Interesting. I did feel warm and fuzzy until I read the woman's observation of the dog's motivation. I am not the kind who bonds with a pet, but I have generally believed stories of dogs being loyal and protective of their "owners," even in tune with their health. We do tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior. Are dogs really protecting their source of food and shelter; the mutual benefit of maintaining a strong pack? Are we doing anything more noble than that ourselves? I like to believe so. but maybe I just like feeling warm and fuzzy.