Incentives and Inhibitors

In his book Drive, Daniel “Dan” Pink argues that money is an incentive that encourages low-skill work, but that money actually has the opposite effect when used as an incentive for creative tasks.  Pink uses this argument to point out how businesses are using the wrong approach to encourage creativity and innovation.  The natural inclination is to assume this research should inform the design of schools.

I’m not entirely convinced, just from the research noted by Pink, that it should be.  The major reason why I would propose caution in doing so is that children are different than adults.  Brain development impacts how we respond to incentives and risks.  It’s reasonable to at least consider that the way we see adults respond to incentives is not the same way children do.  I’m not arguing that children don’t respond in the same way, I don’t know, but we need to at least consider that possibility before arriving at a conclusion.

A change that I do think needs to be put in place in schools is in how students are evaluated.  The system we have used is pretty simple to understand.  The students who do the best producing what the teachers want get the best scores.  Those students who have a more difficult time producing what is asked of them get lower scores.  It’s a system that allows students to be easily ranked, sorted, and categorized.  It’s an efficient and effective system for pushing students towards different outcomes based on their perceived aptitudes.  It makes grades and test scores the golden ticket on the yellow brick road to higher education and a happy life (I don’t believe this, I’m simply arguing it as the perception).

The problem with this system is that it no longer prepares students to participate in our current society, much less the society that they will be expected to participate in when they reach adulthood.  We need to change the way we approach education.  The thing stopping us is the fact that change is difficult.  Changing things that have been a certain way for a long time are even harder to change.  Changing the way we assess and evaluate is going to impact students, teachers, parents, employers, institutions of higher education, car insurance, and any other countless number of groups and institutions.

The changes that need to happen are significant.  To make this happen well there needs to be a series of purposeful incremental change as opposed to a single seismic change.  Shifting from giving traditional grades on every assignment students submit to giving significantly fewer grades and more detailed feedback is one step we can take.  We can also scaffold activities up, meaning that the focus of a course, unit, or lesson can be changed from memorization to meaningful application of knowledge.  As we venture down this path we can eventually move away from grades towards an evaluation approach that is more descriptive.

The nature of the world we live in means that we need to know things, we need to be able to research things on our own, and we need to be able to take what we learn and use it to change the world around us.  Those are the traits I believe students need to have before they leave school.  There are lots of reasons why this will be difficult, or won’t work, for many students.  I know I have a lot of questions about this change myself!  I also know that if we don’t start making the change we won’t be preparing students appropriately.  If we can’t do that as educators then its hard to argue for the value of education and, more specifically, the need for compulsory education.

Category(s): GEDI

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