“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?