Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sticks and Carrots

During the eight years of the recent Bush administration education was subjected to a school reform model that relied largely on "sticks"as a motivational device. The "No Child Left Behind" version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, while having some redeeming qualities (eg the focus on disaggregation of data), largely depended on coercive strategies to get things done. Schools and school people were put on notice that if schools did not meet the arbitrary standards set by states, they would be put into a track whre more and more decisions were made by those outside the school.

The Obama administrtion has taken a slightly different approach. They are using more "carrots" as incentives to created change. The "Race to the Top" competition is putting four billion dollars into education and they are suggesting that the new reauthorization of ESEA will use competition between schools and districts as its lever for change.

Now there is not argument that carrots are tastier than sticks, but it IS good to remember that a carrot is just a stick you can eat. In other words, while the tone may be "kinder and gentler" (to quote another Bush)the approach relies on the same basic assumptions of how you get people to move. You either threaten them with a stick or entice them with a carrot.

The problem with both these approaches is that they rely on extrinsic threats and rewards to move people. They assume that education is external and mechanistic and if you can just leverage things different behavior will result. However, education is not external and mechanistic--it is internal and organic. It comes from the inside out and it depends on the humanity of the teacher and student to succeed. It is perhaps more dependent on intrinsic rewards than any other business out there.

Daniel Pink, the author of "A Whole New Mind" (which should be a must read for any educator) has written a new book called "Drive: The Truth About What Motivates Us." In this book, Pink mounts extensive research to make the point that extrinsic motivation works when the work is repetitive and simple. When it requires creativity and innovation, intrinsic rewards are best. He suggests that work that involves autonomy, mastery and purpose go further in promoting creative expression.

Teaching and learning, by their very nature, require creative expression and would best be promoted through a reliance on intrinsic rewards. Merit pay and other forms of pay for performance, which currently are the rage in Washington and which are being promoted by the Obama administration, seems to be exactly the wrong thing to do in the context of expecting better classroom performance. Perhapds policy makers should abandon the idea of sticks or carrotss and focus more on how we might promote autonomy, mastery, and purpose in our classrooms.

(This entry first appeared on the Developmental Studies Blog.)