K-12 learning: Why I’m pro-‘bribe’

"Once the pizza was gone, the readers kept reading and the non-readers stopped bothering." - Quinn Anya Carey. eLearningSpaceQuinn has skillfully argued against the use of financial incentives and other materialistic ones in K-12. The problem is, she's wrong in this case. Here are half a dozen counter-arguments, served up with due respect to Quinn. I invite others to comment: 1. Different students are motivated in different ways. The smart creative ones like Quinn will be more self-driven than average kids. But they can still go after incentives that match their interests, whether software or a legal e-book edition of The Hobbit (a rather hypothetical example right now, alas, just like the Harry Potter series). If some of the money is wasted, because the students would have learned anyhow--well, that's hardly the biggest tragedy if the incentive-based approach helps the majority.

2. Students from low-income families, those representing the greatest challenge for schools, will often be the ones to respond most enthusiastically to incentives. They tend to be more materialistic than middle- and upper-middle-class students. And why not? The well-off students already own 3G P4 machines and iPods.

3. I agree with Quinn’s “fat kids” example. But what if students benefited from actively involved mentors who could monitor their progress through online testing, and who quizzed the kids in other ways? That’s the approach advocated by Ken Komoski, who, incidentally, found that as a child he responded very well to “bribes” from his older brother in the military. Via bribe after bribe, he memorized verse after verse of classical poetry and much else. I know Ken would be thrilled for Quinn to check out the evolving eLeaningSpace to get a hint of the possibilities (addition, Nov. 9: eLearningSpace is not Times Dollars–simply a way to drive students there). If nothing else, Ken’s case shows that even bright and creative students at times can be “bribed” to learn.

While bribery may help, it’s hardly the only approach Ken advocates. He also wants teachers and mentors to inspire the students. In his vision they are not just to be parked in front of machine without contact with other humans.

4. eLearningSpace asks students for feedback on the Web sites to which it sends them to address the academic shortcomings that the online tests reveal. The students can identify which ones have meat and hold their interest. Talk about Quinn’s games-related example! Ken would applaud anything that would hold kids’ attention and teach multiplication skills.

5. After a few decades, some of the force-fed or incentivized students may return for fun to books to which they were exposed but didn’t fully appreciate. It’s happened to me.

6. Life isn’t just about self-motivation. Many if not most people hate their jobs or large parts of them; only money keeps them working. I wish this weren’t so, but it is at most companies. Via incentives students can at least accustom themselves to this future reality for them. Along the way, needless to say, I hope they will have fun as well. But life, alas, isn’t just about multiplication lessons embedded inside computer games. Meanwhile, yes, I hope that the world of adult work will change. Just don’t count on it.

Update, 14:06: Here’s one idea from Ken for student who feel they don’t need Time Dollars to incenitivize them. Why not do a Time Dollars donation to charity?

5 Comments on K-12 learning: Why I’m pro-‘bribe’

  1. Your rebuttal got me to do some research, and there’s one book that kept getting mentioned, Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards. With 35 pages of bibliography, mostly citing publications in major journals with results of experiments and psychological studies, it’s no polemic-of-the-week but seems to be a very well-researched and well-written attempt to debunk the “legacy of behaviorism” that permeates the way these educational strategies have been set up.

    It’s “common knowledge” that rewards are the way to go when trying to get people to do what you want. He offers a number of philosophical objections to the strategy, but moreover, some practical, empirical reasons why we shouldn’t base systems on bribes.

    He mentions one study where one group of 4th/5th graders were rewarded for playing certain math games, but not others, while a second group received no rewards either way. When the rewards disappeared, the bribed students were even less interested in those math games than the kids who had never been bribed. (p. 39) This was not the only example in his data that showed these same results of loss of reward resulting in significantly decreased interest.

    Not only are students less inclined to continue the activity once they’ve stopped being bribed, rewards have been shown in numerous studies to reduce performance (p. 42-48). Even examples specifically dealing with reading are brought up (p. 65-66, 73-74, 268-269) and one person even commented that students ability to recall information and answer simple questions about books they had just read were significantly reduced when incentives were involved.

    It’s a very interesting book that’s definitely worth checking out.

    Now, to address some specific points that Kohn doesn’t specifically talk about:

    3) Being bribed to learn classical poetry. How much of it does he remember? Myself, there were things I had to learn in token-economy classrooms, and there were things I learned without reward– either because someone showed me how it was cool, or because it was just assigned, no carrot attached. Guess which ones I remember to this day? A bribe is fine, but if the material doesn’t connect with you somehow, it doesn’t tend to stick.

    4) I’ve looked at eLearningSpace, and while I think it is a great idea, I have a lot more to say than what can fit into a comment that’s already getting long.

    5) So some students, through name recognition or what have you, will return to some books they were bribed to read years before. I only see that as support for “for some people, a bribe-based system isn’t a total lifelong failure”, not that it’s a very effective way to do things.

    6) There’s a lot of people stuck in jobs they hate, who only go because they have bills to pay. How is this a good reason to employ the same system with kids? It seems almost like admitting defeat before you start; I thought the trick was to try to get them to like learning, in hopes they will further their education to a point where they stand a chance of getting a job they don’t have to drag themselves to from 9-5. Sure, not all of them will, but making educational motivation like workplace motivation won’t help things.

    Update comment: It’s a nice idea, and maybe I’m just cynical, but I feel like donating Time Dollars to charity will only appeal to a very small group of students. I mean, as a kid I was reading anyway, and I like to think I wasn’t an 8-year-old misanthrope, but if I was given the choice to eat the pizza or give it to a homeless kid… I’d eat the pizza.

  2. Hi, Quinn. I’ll share with you an Amazon customer’s thoughts on Punished by Rewards:

    While less exciting a read than Kohn’s book, a much more even-handed and scholarly work on the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation controversy can be found in the book “Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Resolving the Controversy” by Cameron and Pierce. For an easier and more popular book on this controversy (but no less well written), pick up “Other People’s Habits” by Aubrey Daniels. Both books will clearly point out the flaws in Kohn’s scholarship.

    No, I haven’t read the books involved, but it is clear that Kohn’s conclusions are not accepted universally among experts.

    As for your detailed impressions of eLearningSpace, send them on to me, and I’ll share ’em with Ken Komoski. You may well have some great ideas that he can incorporate there when the resources are available.

    Speaking of Ken, he truly does have the poetry down pat–I heard him recite. I doubt he’d be so emphatic about the usefulness of incentives unless they had worked for him. That goes back to my earlier point. Different people are motivated in different ways, and educators should recognize this. I suspect that incentives of the Time Dollars variety would appeal to far more people than you would guess.

    Beyond that, keep in mind that Ken intends to associate Time Dollars with social good, such as students helping each other– not just competing for pizza and all that. The Time Dollars folks have assembled some interesting case histories to illustrate the validity of their “coproduction” approach. Even Alfie Kohn might be open-minded about the possibilities here.


  3. I definitely see now that eLearningSpace is more than just bribing kids with things to get them to do schoolwork (unlike Pizza Hut) which is the first thing that came to mind when I saw the earlier description, which brought this whole thing up. Mea culpa.

    But I figure it’s made for some food for thought on both sides, and hey, sitting around arguing about things without actually ever coming to definitive conclusions is what God made academics for, right? 😉

  4. Thanks for your open-mindedness, Quinn. Yes, eLearningSpace is a far cry from the Pizza Hut approach. It’s a set of diagnostic tools for learners, complete with pointers to Web sites that can address their shortcomings. The Times Dollars concept happens to be a way to get people involved with eLearningSpace–either using it or mentoring the users. I know. Granted, there could be more polish, but that’s a matter of money. Email your thoughts to me about eLearningSpace and I’ll convey them to Ken, who I know will appreciate them. Thanks again, Quinn! David

  5. I’ve started a men’s 501 C-3 service club in FL and we’re considering paying kids $1.00/book to read. Any experience with this or comments. I’ve volunteered to outline procedures over the summer so we can start in September. I’d like to talk to someone that’s been through a project such as this in order to sharpen our learning curve.



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