Friday, August 28, 2009

The Candle Problem: How to Damage Motivation

Herbert Kohl says we are missing the boat, motivation wise, in an open letter to Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.

Now the mantra is high expectations and high standards. Yet, with all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn that moved my students. Recently I asked a number of elementary school students what they were learning about and the reactions were consistently, “We are learning how to do good on the tests.” They did not say they were learning to read.

Mr. Kohl sees a fundamental contradiction between what we say we want and we were are doing to get it.

It is hard for me to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when the substance and content of learning is reduced to the mechanical task of getting a correct answer on a manufactured test.

What, for Mr. Kohl, motivates learning, at least for learning to read?

...reading is a tool, an instrument that is used for pleasure and for the acquisition of knowledge and information about the way the world works. The mastery of complex reading skills develops as students grapple with ideas, learn to understand plot and character, and develop and articulate opinions on literature.

Nowhere does Mr. Kohl mention extrinsic rewards. Teachers have observed, and Robert Slavin's research has confirmed the dissipating effect of extrinsic rewards.
Robert Slavin's position--that extrinsic rewards promote student motivation and learning--may be valid within the context of a "facts-and-skills" curriculum. However, extrinsic rewards are unnecessary when schools offer engaging learning activities; programs addressing social, ethical, and cognitive development; and a supportive environment.

Not only do extrinsic rewards fail to motivate, except in limited cases, but research has also found that extrinsic rewards actually sabotage motivation.

So what's with the ubiquitous classroom token economies and marble jars on teachers' desks? Are we deliberately sacrificing long-term benefits to students for short-term classroom management? How about pay-for-performance or merit pay? First. And foundationally, EVERYONE deserves to be paid fairly. “Getting the issue of money off the table,” as Dan Pink says.

If our society want to motivate the highest performance from teachers, then give them:


NOT merit pay.

Merit pay is inherently unfair. The bug-a-boo with merit pay is that teachers have so little control over the factors that impact student achievement. What do we say, for example, about the student I wrote about who actually scored worse after his first year with me only to leapfrog three grades the second year with me.  Should I have lost pay the first year?  I was still the same great teacher.  I had no idea his alcoholic uncle moved in with him and his mom that first year. What do you do if you are the great teacher in a school in an environment where just about everything seems to be conspiring against the kids? And what if you are lucky enough to teach in a school where kids have all kinds of advantages and their scores show it regardless of who is their teacher? Policy-makers have not figured out any equitable mechanism for awarding merit pay.

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