Saturday, June 06, 2009

Carrots and Circumstance

It's graduation time again, and that means that a combined six years of time is going to be spent handing out various awards nationwide. (Actually, this statistic is completely made up. In truth, I have no idea how much combined time is going to be spent handing out awards, though I think my own high school graduation is still going on now, and it started more than six years ago). Valedictorians and salutatorians are going to be recognized, along with those who earned special departmental awards. Some lucky graduates will be given trophies and plaques commemorating their dominance at band, athletics, and drama. Others will be given special faculty awards to showcase that they have succeeded in not alienating authority figures. Some will get citizenship awards to mark that they have made outstanding contributions to their community and world. Others will get perfect attendance certificates, indicating that they have good immune systems.

Meanwhile, commencement speakers will attempt to impart wisdom and advice upon the departing masses of both award-winning and non-award winning graduates. In their speeches, many will provide quotations uttered or written by others. Some might even cite research studies. Most likely though, no one will quote an author by the name of Daniel Pink, or bring up the research that he cites in a book coming out this December called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I recently saw Pink on CSPAN-2, speaking at a Book Expo. Here is some of what he said (courtesy of this blog):

“There are two main drives that power primates — replenishing physical needs and avoiding punishment.” Threats and bribes. “But maybe there’s a third drive — doing things for their own reward. One professor who was doing some testing brought two groups of people into a room with some puzzles and then left them. What do the groups do after he leaves? The group not receiving money for working puzzles gets interested in the puzzles anyway, while the ones getting monetary rewards soon lost interest. Rewards make even interesting things become uninteresting.

“This book is about why people do what they do. We respond to more than just carrots and sticks — because we get interested. The way that we run our schools and business right now is way off. The wheels have fallen off the bus.”

Of course, when we think of carrots and sticks in the education system the first thing most of us think of is the grading system. And certainly there have been many head-in-the-clouds theorists over the years who have posited that our system would be more pure (and perhaps more effective) if we were to do away with grades. However, I have never heard anyone rail against Honor Rolls, Dean's Lists, and all of the other honors and designations that one can attain in academia. But couldn't a case be made that these things diminish the idea that education is its own reward? Already, there seems to be a strong public sentiment that education is a means to an end. Do educators really need to further this sentiment?

Some may argue that we have a long tradition of bestowing carrots in academics, but we also have a long tradition of using the stick as a motivator, quite literally. Just as we have succeeded in realizing that it is counterproductive to physically punish academic failure, perhaps we will realize that it is counterproductive to reward success. And maybe it would take some of the pomp out of our commencement ceremonies, but it might lead to far preferable circumstances.


Blogger Eileen said...

I don't necessarily think that a rewards system is all that bad, but what about the "underachievers" that don't get any recognition at all? What about the No-Child-Left-Behind act that focuses on the mediocre rather than the excelling or the ones falling behind, doesn't that seem like a statute that hinders children from excelling rather than helping? That's what I and many others feel, and until we get rid of that in the public school system, we'll have to reward mediocracy with gold stars and "carrots".

12:53 PM  

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