January 29, 2008

Paying for Student Performance

Sherman Dorn rounds up the commentary on the recent plans to "pay" students for performing well at school.

None of the commenters, including Dorn, appear to understand "student motivation" and how "rewards" affect motivation or lack thereof. The result is a lot of ill-informed opinion, i.e., the typical state of affairs in education opinion journalism.

Here's a forty year old excerpt on the topic from Your Child Can Succeed:

A child who is told to do his arithmetic worksheet has choices. He can either do the worksheet, look out the window, draw a picture, or belt the little girl next to him. Operant Psychology would hold that if you want the child to choose one of these actions over the others, you have to make that one more rewarding (or less punishing) than the others. The value in making the desired activity rewarding (rather than less punishing) is that if the child learns that working arithmetic problems is "rewarding" he will tend to work on arithmetic problems even when he is not rewarded. If he is taught that every time he doesn't do his arithmetic problems he gets clobbered, he will learn a great deal about what happens when he doesn't do arithmetic, but very little about the rewards that may be associated with doing arithmetic.

Give the kid a reason for doing what you want him to do. Set up a contingency so that if he performs he receives something that he wants. The only way he can get the payoff is to do what you want him to do.

Some children do not work for the joy of doing arithmetic. By using payoffs to get them started, the teacher can systematically build up "motivation." At first the child is interested only in the specific payoff--the candy or the extra recess. As he learns, he receives other payoffs, such as praise for good work. After a while he learns to treat the payoff more as a symbol of his competence than as an end in itself. And he learns that the work itself was perhaps less than fun but certainly not punishment. Finally the child will be willing to work for nothing more than the praise and sense of achievement associated with performing well.


There is, of course, much more to student motivation than is presented in this short excerpt. This issue is far more complicated than the commentary would lead you to believe. Check out this series of posts on How To Effectively Manage a Classroom from an actual classroom teacher who's been successful motivating recalitrant students.

9 comments:

NYC Math Teacher said...

I tried a positive reinforcement system in my most troublesome (6th grade) class (I actually did it after responses to one of my posts here earlier this school year). I gave out raffle tickets for students doing "the right thing", mostly behaviorally. At the end of a specified period of time I held the raffle and several winners won a pizza luncheon.

After this, I joined in with another teacher's "table tallies" method, where tables won (or lost) points. The winners, again, won a luncheon.

In both instances, the winners were students who did the right thing without the tangible incentives. The out of control students didn't give a rat's tuchas. Coupled with toothless NYC DOE sanctions for disruptive behavior, the situation is thus: Hours upon hours of stolen education.

Sherman Dorn said...

I thought my point was a bit different, but maybe I wasn't clear enough, because my point is absolutely consistent with the behaviorist handbook on toilet training, which suggest rewarding a child who stays clean and dry by giving them something that will keep them practicing the skill they need to practice.

In any case, to address your post: There's nothing wrong with learning about operant conditioning, behaviorist approaches such as token economies, cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc., as long as you view it as part of a professional teacher's repertoire of skills, and as long as no one thinks a particular approach is a Holy Grail. My spouse uses these approaches all the time with her crowd of adolescents with cognitive and behavior issues, but nothing works perfectly.

KDeRosa said...

Sherman, I think you're confused re behaviorism and the confusion has affected your analysis. I'll elaborate next week. Stay tuned.

palisadesk said...

NYCmath, your experience is a common one. I see it frequently in our own middle school too.

It's likely that you did not first survey the students to determine what would, in fact, be a "positive reinfocement" for them - especially for the n'er-do-wells and disruptive types. If I had a dollar for the times I have heard, "I tried rewards and it didn't work," I would be rich. If a reward "doesn't work" it's not a reward for that individual. Maybe your low kids didn't care about pizzas or special lunches. The teacher has to find out what IS reinforcing to those students.

The second likely factor is the time frame. Really dysfunctional students do not have the ability to smarten up for a distant reinforcer -- it has to be immediate, or nearly so. It may be that a group needs a reinforcer that they can "win" the same day, or even the same period. What those can (doably) be is subject for a whole different discussion.

Fred Jones deals with this very well if you can get hold of his books, Positive Classroom Discipline and Positive Classroom Instruction.

In my experience, low-performing sixth graders need immediate payoffs at first -- no longer than a day away, preferably the same day. They can then be shaped to work for more distant goals.

Yes, they "should" be beyond this, but if they aren't, we need to start where they actually are, not where we would like them to be.

All of this is a lot of work and takes a great deal of teacher planning and organization. The only thing that makes it worthwhile is that is does then get those disruptive or nonperforming students on the track to success. Not all of them, and not all the time, but over a period of several months many will show huge improvement.

However, I have never met a colleague who learned this in professional training. I didn't either. I learned it elsewhere. Even our district behavior consultants who come in do not appreciate the need to determine the reinforcers that will work, and then a time frame that will enable the student to "win." The student must be successful about 90% of the time to develop that "intrinsic motivation" we want to see. Feedback from the teacher must be 4 positives to one negative (5:1 is even better).

The students who are already motivated to do the right thing should be able to opt out of the system, or to choose a reinforcer meaningful to them (the opportunity to submit a self-chosen independent project, for instance). Students who are already "intrinsically motivated" will likely feel demeaned by pizza rewards; however there are other privileges they would appreciate.

Fred Jones' "Preferred Activity Time" would probably work for you, because it is very subject/content focused and keeps everyone involved in academic tasks which the teacher controls. Check it out.

NYC Math Teacher said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, palisadesk. You make a lot of sense and it's clear that you have a well thought out classroom management plan. (I've read your earlier posts as well.)

As it turns out, I'm going to be leaving teaching after this year to work at my wife's business. Though this is an economic and family-related decision, I must say that the near-complete lack of consequences for extremely disruptive behavior, and the consequent heaping of the entirety of responsibility on teachers' shoulders played a small part. Perhaps my personality is such that I cannot accept that as part of a child's education. Perhaps I just want to spend my free time with my family and not devising a behavior management plan to marginally improve outcomes. (Am I cynical enough yet?)

I love being a math teacher, and I love teaching 6th graders -- even the knuckleheads. And while I understand the practical nature of your advice, I still believe that the absence of negative consequences leaves enough of an opening for just a few kids to ruin things. Do your successes take place in an atmosphere where nothing happens to students who start fights in the classroom? Does your district have limits to what is tolerated in the classroom? You noted that "[a]ll of this is a lot of work and takes a great deal of teacher planning and organization". Do you find that, at the end of a given school year, the benefits, in terms of student learning, outweigh the costs, in terms of time both in (especially in) and out of school? Do the more advanced students (or, for that matter, the struggling but well-behaved students) benefit much when you have to devote so much time controlling the miscreants?

NYC Math Teacher said...

An afterthought:

As a parent, the thought that teachers must spend valuable time simply managing the extreme behavior problems -- time that is then not available for instruction or instructional planning -- is a hard one to swallow. I'm not saying we should start shipping these kids off to reform school, but the legal obstacles to handling such children administratively have placed too heavy a burden on teachers. If any of my children were ever in such a class, I wouldn't wait around for the teacher -- even if he or she were an expert classroom manager such as you, palisadesk -- to establish order. Time is too precious for that.

Amy P said...

My daughter (a tough customer) was resisting potty training all the way up until a month before her fourth birthday. This was a big deal, since she needed to be trained in order to go to pre-K. We had some moderate success with M&Ms (a favorite with potty-training mommies), but that eventually fizzled. Eventually I had to move on to the big guns. I bought (with her input) a selection of My Little Ponies and enticing art items and priced each of them. She was able to earn a prize per day, given the pricing structure (big items might take two days). This was very important, because as a nearly-4 her motivational horizon was very short. She potty-trained very quickly once the correct motivational structure was in place.

Once she was very consistent and going to school, I discontinued potty prizes. She clamored for their return. At that point (nearly 4.5), I started a reading program with her, and let her choose a prize every time she completed a set of phonics readers. I phased that out once we'd finished all the readers we had, but we read about 15 sets (probably 150 little readers). She's 5.5 and reads picture books to herself, but isn't up to reading chapter books. (Note to self: We should take her to the library more.)

She's 5.5 and for a long time she was resistant to tidying up her many toys. We've now moved to paying her $1 for the living room or her bedroom being clean (we work alongside her and pay in the evening). The largest amount she's saved so far has been 8 or 9 dollars. This system isn't always motivating, but when she has a purchase in mind, she's capable of cleaning her room, the living room, and her baby brother's room all in a single evening. Her help makes a huge dent in the housework burden. I would love it if she would tidy up her hundreds of toys just out of love of order or because she wants to help mommy and daddy, but that wasn't going to happen. I do occasionally fine her for egregious and unnecessary messes. This is still a work in progress.

About the pizza reward--the horizon is too far off, and it may not be that special to the kids.

Amy P said...

Note that in my example, the reward structure was pretty expensive. On the other hand, education is already expensive, and $5 per child per day amounts to $900 a year for a 180 day year. A month or two of good behavior could add up to a very fine pair of tennis shoes or a couple nice outfits, if that was what kids wanted. It might be worthwhile to bring in a vendor once or twice a month, since it may be more reinforcing to be able to immediately purchase items rather than getting a giftcard that sits in a drawer. I did very well by having a pre-bought prize selection that I would pull out of the closet and show to my daughter.

NYC Math Teacher said...

Regarding the pizza:

I agree that the time horizon was too far off for some of the kids (the ones most in need of instant gratification). However, there was great interest and anticipation among a goodly number of them.