Friday, February 12, 2010

Teach Kids As We Want to Be Treated

As teachers, we possess incredible power to shape the actions of future generations. Why, then, are so many of us careless with one of the most important lessons we can teach -- why people do what we do? As Claus von Zastrow discussed recently, incentives are "all the rage" for motivating both teachers and students. In particular, incentives and punishment are integral parts of many "high-achieving" school models touted by the media and political leaders. I am no expert on KIPP, but at first blush, KIPP's "paycheck" system strikes me as about incentive-y as you get. There are 2 fronts to approach this on. First, the moral ground. Yes, adults are often motivated by incentives and punishments -- but do we want to be? Do our best actions come from them? As adults, we should educate children to live the best lives possible, not just maintain the status quo. Second, with possibly more universal appeal, is the pragmatic ground. Even when incentives give us shorter-term results like better test scores, in the long run they can cripple students, as von Zastrow points out, and Alfie Kohn argues beautifully in his book, Punished by Rewards.

Before I start sounding like a teacher-saint, let me fully disclose that I relied heavily on incentives to manage my class last year. And even that was preferable to my first year, when I had barely heard the term "classroom management," let alone developed any kind of system for it. Now, in my third year, I'm not above using them as a scaffold for kids behaving in ways that seriously interfere with learning. But, I am happy to say I have made progress, thanks to great teacher-mentors, training in social curriculum (more below,) and a good kick in the ethical pants from reading Punished by Rewards last summer.
So, without further ado, let's delve deeper into HOW we get kids to value "learning for its own sake" -- or at least for the sake of more worthwhile and/or realistic things than stickers, money, food, grades, etc. Here are two tools I've found relatively successful:
  1. Explicit, incessant discussion of why content is important. In kindergarten, I give lots of concrete examples of what kids CAN do if they getter better at a certain skill. "If you get better at reading, you CAN read that Harry Potter book in the library." "If you learn how to write numbers, you CAN write your phone number down for your friend to call." As I've found through trial and error, doing this well involves bringing the kids on it. Before kids start independent work, I'll sometimes ask them to explain why it is important. Additionally, I start to build concepts of longer-term benefits (and put in my own plug for social justice) by asking kids what they might like to do and make better in the world, then connecting their learning to their ability to do this. For example, our kids love our playground, and want there to be playgrounds everywhere -- so I explain how to build a playground, you first need to measure spaces and write down your plans.

  2. Logical consequences, both positive and negative. Logical consequences are matched in CONTENT (as well as intensity and time) to a student's actions. So, if a student works hard on solving a math problem using plastic cubes, she might earn the choice of using plastic cubes AND wooden tiles for the next math problem. And if another student goofs off during his math work time, he might make up the work after school. Part of the reasoning behind this (as I was trained) is that the connection of the consequence to the original behavior reinforces or discourages the behavior more effectively than an unrelated consequence. For example, if students earn extra library time for working hard on reading, when they're in the library with books in hand, on some level they're thinking, "Wow, I like reading." If they are rewarded with a pizza party, they are more likely thinking, "Wow, I really like pizza" -- with no emotional or cognitive connection to why they got the reward.
While teachers and their training programs bear much of the responsibility for developing and implementing classroom management through tools other than incentives and punishments, schools and policy-makers need to be in there, too. One big investment of time and influence school and other leaders can make is commitment to a social curriculum. Some which emphasize alternatives to incentives and punishment are Responsive Classroom, Love and Logic, and Nonviolent Communication. My school's commitment to Responsive Classroom has made a big impact on learning. Teachers and other instructional staff receive significant training in the approach, and it appears that administrators also look for some level of philosophical alignment when they hire new staff. Becoming more consistent with Responsive Classroom across the school has made a giant difference in culture, both inside and outside classrooms. Teachers have a lot of power over the messages we send within own classrooms -- but a message of intrinsic motivation is even more powerful if the teacher down the hall isn't handing out candy for answers, and the lunchlady isn't screaming at kids in line.
This post is adapted from a comment posted on Public School Insights.


Claus von Zastrow said...

This is a fascinating account of motivation in action in the classroom--a nice concrete account that makes"love of learning for its own sake" a good deal more compelling. (I loved the idea, but it's often vague.

Your discussion of school-wide philosophies is very interesting. Many parents objected to the cash for grades schemes in some schools, because they felt it undermined the messages they themselves wanted to send about learning. I imagine teachers might have the same concerns about other teachers undermining their own strategies. Incentives tend to have system-wide effects, for better or worse.

TeachingSerendipity said...

After reading a post on Curriculum Matters about motivation today, I would add a 3rd tool to this list: HELPING STUDENTS UNDERSTAND THEIR OWN PROGRESS.

Read this post for more details:

Joe Bower said...

I love & live this topic. I teach middle school in Canada and I am a huge fan of Kohn's work.

I abolished grades and behaviourist tactics 5 years ago. I now subscribe to Bruner's Law: Students should experience success and failure not as reward & punishment but as information.

Check out my blog. I think you will enjoy it.