Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Beyond Motivation

The Boston Globe ran a story recently about a poor Massachusetts district that's using rewards to try to improve student behavior. Good behavior can earn students a pizza party, ice skating trip, or even a rap concert in the school auditorium. Frankly, all of these prizes seem pretty tame when you consider that in New York we were paying students in cash for getting good grades.

Philosophically, I'm split about the virtues of these kinds of rewards. On the one hand, it seems to cheapen the school day and the value of learning. It becomes about what do I have to do in order to go ice skating at the end of the month, rather than what can I do to become a better-educated person ready to succeed in the world. That being said, many adults get paid bonuses for doing well (or on Wall Street, even not doing so well). The extra incentive can boost motivation and that's part of life and why fight it? So philosophically, I'm divided.

But in the practical realm, I see this effort as not nearly enough.

Consider for a moment the thought of me (a liberal arts major who hasn't taken a real math class in the last 8 years) trying to figure out calculus. So I sit down at my kitchen table with a pencil and some lined paper and start trying to do some derivatives. I can't imagine that I would get very far. You can offer me all the pizza parties or ice skating trips in the world and it won't make a difference. You could offer to give me a million dollars. I'll be as motivated as can be, but I'm not going to get any closer to solving calclulus problems. I just don't have that ability. Motivation wouldn't give me the ability.

To return to our real life schools in Randolph, the motivation alone isn't enough to make kids learn. It may increase their receptivity to learning, but the learning itself still has to come from good teaching. That means good, well-trained, teachers working with engaging curriculums to reach all the students. That is going to be what makes the difference. The motivation element may help, but that alone is not going to do the trick. Classroom learning still comes down to effective teaching.

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