March 5, 2009

The journalistic standards of the New York Times continue to decline

Critical thinking is easier when you know something about a subject. Take for example the following statement:

For decades, educators have warned against teaching children to read, they say — many children who are taught to read become struggling readers who hate to read — so teaching a child to read instead of allowing them to learn to read naturally can undermine the joy of reading for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.


Clearly this is a ridiculous statement (though it comes extremely close to the logic propounded by whole-language ideologues). And, it is easily identified as based on faulty logic. The problem is faulty reading instruction is bad, not all reading instruction. The statement can be easily remedied:

For decades, educators have warned against faulty reading instruction, they say — many children who are taught to read poorly become struggling readers who hate to read — so faulty reading instruction can undermine the joy of reading for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.


That's much better.

Let's try the exercise again with the lede paragraph of this Times article:

For decades, psychologists have warned against giving children prizes or money for their performance in school. “Extrinsic” rewards, they say — a stuffed animal for a 4-year-old who learns her alphabet, cash for a good report card in middle or high school — can undermine the joy of learning for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.


This statement suffers from the same deficiencies as the first statement, but it's more difficult to understand why unless you know something about basic principles of behavior. The problem isn't that all "extrinsic" rewards can backfire, just poorly designed extrinsic reward systems. Let's fix the statement up.

For decades, psychologists have warned against giving children prizes or money for their performance in school when the children are already motivated to learn. “Extrinsic” rewards, they say in this situation — a stuffed animal for a 4-year-old who learns her alphabet, cash for a good report card in middle or high school — can undermine the joy of learning for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.


The basic rule is to never use a stronger motivational system than you need to get the job done. If praise and grades will do the job then there's no need to implement a token reward system, such as cash or rewards for grades. If a token reward system is needed to motivate a child, then use the least invasive rewards that'll motivate the child to engage in the desired behavior (i.e., learning) and fade out the system as soon as possible. For example, trying rewarding with free time or other reinforcing activities before offering cash, candy, treats, or other tangible rewards.

This is not exactly controversial. About the only person who might disagree with such a statement is Alfie Kohn, but then again he's not a psychologist.

The Times then goes on to use the faulty lede to set up a false dichotomy with the view of "economists" and "businesspeople":

But many economists and businesspeople disagree, and their views often prevail in the educational marketplace. Reward programs that pay students are under way in many cities. In some places, students can bring home hundreds of dollars for, say, taking an Advanced Placement course and scoring well on the exam.


The Times has framed the debate poorly for the reader to understand the real issues and the possible dangers of these kinds of reward programs. And do you really trust the Times as it butchers the statement of its lead "he said - she said" expert:

Whether such efforts work or backfire “continues to be a raging debate,” said Barbara A. Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Penn State, who opposes using prizes as incentives.


I question whether Dr. Marinak would support the paraphrase as written. Seems like they dug awfully deep to find someone who supports the unqualified "extrinsic rewards likely to backfire" position. Especially when it's pretty easy to find an article co-authored by Dr. Marinak that supports the use of rewards for motivating children to read:

If your reading program uses incentives, consider using rewards that are proximal to reading. The importance of reading-related rewards may go beyond recognizing the relationship between reward proximity and the desired behavior. It could be that the real value of reading-related rewards is that both the desired behavior (reading) and the reward (books, self-selection, time) define a classroom culture that supports and nurtures the intrinsic motivation to read.


And the Times wonders why it is slowly going bankrupt.

14 comments:

Mr. Mahoney said...

The lead paragraph of the Times article states that extrinsic rewards "can" undermine learning. It doesn't say that it "does" or "always" undermines learning.

What about the concept of delayed gratification?

What about getting a good grade, parental and teacher praise, expanding one's knowledge and understanding, personal growth, setting up a pattern of success, self-confidence, self-respect. There is controversy over these intangible and delayed rewards vs proximal/material rewards. It's a debate that's been going on for centuries and it's not confined to education.

Perhaps these considerations should be included in the Times article, and your blog post, as well.

Mahoney

KDeRosa said...

Mr. Mahoney, both paragraphs taken together are misleading despite the use of "can" to indicate possibility or probability.

The next parapgraph still reads "But many economists and businesspeople disagree."

Do you think it's their opinion that there is no possibility that "prizes or money" lead to an undermining of joy and cheating.

The real issue is whether the risk is sufficiently low in a well designed and implemented reward system.

What about the concept of delayed gratification?

It's an important consideration. But, the relevant question for education relates to getting a child to do something who aren't motivated to do so. What if they aren't motivated by "getting a good grade, parental and teacher praise, expanding one's knowledge and understanding, personal growth, setting up a pattern of success, self-confidence, self-respect?"

You still have to get them to read. The research shows that you can initiate a well-designed reward system to buuild initial motivation that won't have adverse effects later if the ssytem is faded.

The only difference between your list of reinforcers and the reward reinforcers is their nature and degree. They are all potential extrinsic reinforcers that can be used to build motivation.

This doesn't mean that I endorse the spcific plans being endorsed in the article. I actually don't think they are well designed.

Dick Schutz said...

Yikes. When we have the NYT buying into Whole Language reading instruction and ignoring 100 years of psychological research on reinforcement, we're in trouble.

"The basic rule is to never use a stronger motivational system than you need to get the job done."

Yep. That says it simply and comprehensively.

Even scarier than the naivety of the NYT is the naivety of economists and the US Dept of Ed when it comes to paying students and teachers on the basis of standardized achievement test scores.

Alex said...

Actually, the article that Dr. Marinak cowrote and that you cite defines "rewards" as part of the reading process itself. Good books to read, self-selection, and as much time as necessary to read them is part of what a good reading program is. In fact that is what constitutes the group of reading strategies known as "Whole Language." I find it interesting and revealing that you actually try to say that Dr. Marinak would endorse traditional rewards (such as grades, cash, stickers, candy,etc) which don't have anything to do with reading and when she says no such thing at all in the article. You are clearly putting words in her mouth and trying to spin away the research in order to fit your own ideological agenda. In fact, you don't need to be a psychologist in order to see that rewards are controlling and undermine interest in a task that is worth doing for its own sake. Even if the task itself isn't worth doing (ie,practing multiplication tables or listening to a teacher yak on and on about Rennaissance poets),that isn't an argument for using rewards because all that says is that the student needs to be provided with appropriate tasks that are worth doing(ie, writing an essay about how her experience at the beach can fit in with the unit on aquatic life in science class or figuring out how many pices of pizza are needed for the class that can lead into a discussion about the origin and use of frations in math class)and needs to be brought in on the process of deciding the procedure for getting that task accomplished. I think you know full well about the destructive effects of rewards and you simply are another one of those conservatives who want to control kids rather than helping them grow into compassionate, responsible people.

KDeRosa said...

Actually, the article that Dr. Marinak cowrote and that you cite defines "rewards" as part of the reading process itself.

Actually, it doesn't. It doesn't define the term. However, what it does do is implicitly condone the use of rewards and suggests that teachers shouls "consider using rewards that are proximal to reading" which is good advice.

However, (and this is the important part) there will still be some children are neither motivated instrinsically to read and will not be motivated by extrinsic rewards proximal to reading. It is for case that the use of rewards less proximally related to reading may be tried and the literature suggests that the proper use of rewards in such cases is effective.

In fact, you don't need to be a psychologist in order to see that rewards are controlling and undermine interest in a task that is worth doing for its own sake.

Actually, it doesn't if such rewards are used properly. If you were familiar with the literature, you wouldn't make such inaccurate and unqualified statements.

Alex said...

Actually, I am familiar with the literature you say. What your saying is that a child who does feel controlled by a reward "is just misunderstanding the intenionality of the rewarder" (to paraphrase your response) I find your response personally insulting and arrogant.Family members have offered me money in the past for good grades I've earned, which is a reward for a reward. Even my mom disapproved of that tactic, pointing out that a kid could get hooked on the money and want to work on school tasks for that since the expectation of getting the money and the grade might lead the kid to shortcut their way to academic achievement even if they've never bothered to actually understand the concept and use it after the rewards are dispensed (An example being memorizing only the Spanish the teacher wants for the Spanish exam and after getting the grade and the money finding Spanish less appealing and useful later on)You say she "implicitly" says that rewards can be used with reading. All you proved was that you read into her article what you wished were present in it. I'm talking about the "explicit" remarks she and her coauthor made and nowhere does she "explicitly"(ie. openly) endorse traditional rewards such as candy, grades, stickers, etc. for the process of reading. You are obviously an avowed behaviorist because from within your conceptual framwork you seriously view every action of a person as extrinsic to the action he or she chooses to engage in and therefore if a person is already reading a book, you will still offer a reward to that person. You are definitely B.F Skinner's child.

KDeRosa said...

I am not saying that Marinak is endorsing rewards not proximal to reading, such as stickers. But, she is endorsing extrinsic rewards for students who are not intrinsically motivated to read. Her limitation that the rewards should be proximal to reading is merely a matter of degree. That's a distinction without a difference.

According to your view, her "intentionality" in offering these extrinsic rewards must be to control the student to do something she does not find rewarding or is not motivated to do, i.e., read.

Of course, many students who aren't motivated to read already while not be motivated by rewards that are so closely related to reading, a task the student doesn't find rewarding. Now what do you do?

Alex said...

You simply restated my original point that the student needs to be brought in on the process of deciding what task they're going to do and how they're going to do it rather than using rewards of any kind. I think your definition of "rewards" is similar to mine and you just don't realize it because in your response you said that Dr. Marinak endorses "proximal (ie task related) rewards" which, if what you mean to say is that it should have to do with the reading process itself, proves my point. It is indeed true that sometimes people will like what we offer them when we use rewards where the situation itself is complicated, but that doesn't mean that they like to be controlled by the other person when those things are offered conditionally in order to manipulate their behavior in order to do something the rewarder likes because the very use of rewards whether control is intentioned or not is itself a form of control.When I give Susie money for cleaning up around the house, I'm not only presuming that she wouldn't do it in the absence of the cash, but the very fact that I've used the reward on her means that I'll likely have to keep using it indefinitely because thats how the very concept of operant reinforcment theory(behaviorism) creates a dependence on itself. On other occasions, when the task is clearly appealing, rewards still are detrimental because of the fundamental change in the person's Gestalt orientation that occurs no matter when rewards are used because it's inherent in the very nature of operant reinforcement theory which isn't to produce a generalized behavioral principle but an endless series of further reinforcers. For example, if I read a book that I like and am offered a coupon redeemable for free baseball cards for doing so (which by the way I have experienced before), I will indeed lose interest in the book that I'm reading because I'm now going to be thinking about those cards since they've been presented as something that is more valuable than the reading itself. In the future, I'm likely to seek shortcuts to reading and other activities when they've been devalued whether or not the task itself is appealing. The task itself has just been utterly devalued and that's not something that any sane individual would want to see happen, which is why, and I'll repeat, it is so important to give the person whom the task is giving problems an opportunity to adjust the task to fit his or her needs or simply pick another one that does.

KDeRosa said...

You didn't answer my question, Alex. What do you do if the student doesn't find reading to be rewarding and isn't motivated by rewards proximal to reading?

(Assuming, of course, that the goal is to get the student to read.)

Alex said...

KDeRosa, it might have more to do with what we're asking them to read rather than reading itself. Children, I think, are indeed motivated to read intersting things like picture books or alaphbet books where the words are associated with the objects they see and use in their own lives (I certainly was). I did answer your question because if children aren't motivated to read and neither are they motivated by the reward either, then its time to take a step back at look at the situation itself. What conditions have I set up so that my child is confused and bored right now? Did I try to control him with rewards when the tasks including reading were already pleasing to him in the past? Does that very use of rewards self-destruct itself because now not only has my child lost interest in reading but the rewards too? Did I give him something worth doing in the first place? Did I allow him to participate in picking the book and how to repsond to what he's read so that he'll feel a sense of self-motivation and willingness to continue reading in the future? Its not our actions alone that will determine the effects on the child but the meaning that rides on those actions that the child will interpret and understand and indeed all of us do each day we interact with each other. I think that these are important questions to consider and can't be brushed aside by dangling a goody to get the child to read because not only does it not solve the problem, it creates a new one.

KDeRosa said...

First of all, you must have missed this part of the initial post:

The basic rule is to never use a stronger motivational system than you need to get the job done. If praise and grades will do the job then there's no need to implement a token reward system, such as cash or rewards for grades. If a token reward system is needed to motivate a child, then use the least invasive rewards that'll motivate the child to engage in the desired behavior (i.e., learning) and fade out the system as soon as possible. For example, trying rewarding with free time or other reinforcing activities before offering cash, candy, treats, or other tangible rewards.

So, if the child is already motivated to read, there's no need to offer extrinsic motivators in the first place.

If the child, however, is not motivated to read then a teacher might first offer a minimal motivator, such as praise, grades, or "motivators proximal to reading."

If the child does not find these rewards to be motivating, the teacher might then, and only then, offer a stronger motivator, suchas a token reward system to engage the child to read with the hope that successful reading will become instrinsically motivating and the extrinsic motivator can be (and should be) faded as quickly as possible.

This is the proper way to do rewards and it is effecting, provided that the child is able to perform the task he is being asked to engage in, i.e., reading. if the child cannot perform the task then he will likely not find the task to be punishing, in which case any extrinsic reward system, including "rewards proximal to reading" will likely fail.

This cares care of the various strawman arguments you've raised and brings us back to my initial question.

Let's assume that the child is past the picture book and alphabet stage and the material is not otherwise interesting to the child becasue the child is not interested in academic subjects like history, geography, civic, etc. Nonetheless, the teacher wants the child to read and learn about these subjects. The child is not instrinsically motivated and extrinsic rewards proximal to reading have all proven to be inefective. What do you do?

Alex said...

I think that you could read to the child if he isn't interested in any of the things you have presented him or you could turn an activity(ie letter building blocks or playing with toys that syymbolize a story)into a reading activity.

KDeRosa said...

And if that doesn't work (and I have a feeling that those activities for kids older than about 10 are not likely to be succesful)?

Alex said...

Again, I think your setting up a situation which could only be true through the time-warp parallel science fiction universe you seem to live in. I think that by the time that kids are ten years of age or older, they are likely to dive in at things that are worth doing at such as reading and writing since they are likely to have been at least exposed to print and other literacy activities (in fact I was read to by my teachers through the eighth grade and I wasn't bored at all). I know that this posting is about the issue of rewards but I read your smear of Alfie Kohn and I wanted to offer a rebuttal here because we're communicating here and I have some of his books and am familiar with his work and the theorists you obviously aspire to. First off, you remark about Kohn working at Harvard in one of your responses is blatantly false. He mentions in No Contest that he taught at nearby Tufts University and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in his acknowkledgements and elsewhere that he also taught at the Andover Academy in the early 80's. I find it interesting that you proclaim yourself to be an expert on education when you're just an attorney from Pennsylvania. Your invocation of the author Michael Crichton to open your little screed reveals your own lack of knowledge with and juvenile attitude towards educational theory and practice and anyone who disagrees with you. I'm a student who has gone through many of the experiences that Mr. Kohn has described and I feel personally insulted by you attacks because I know he's right. I'm a child of the Head Start program and I definitely remember going through Direct Instruction (DI). By the time I had entered first grade, I had trouble pronouncing words and understanding the basic plots of the stories I was read by my teacher (who did indeed use a scripted lesson plan and was very nasty to me whenever I'd complain about being phyically attacked by the other children in the room). That is actually one of the reasons my mother transferred me out of that school and into another where my teacher actually used real stories as the basis for readingand had the students,including me,do some writing of our own. The reading test that was given to me later on that year (It was one of the Terra Novas) and it showed immediate gains in comprehension as well as phonetic awaremess and decoding skills. In fact, I was well above average for my age group. Secondly, you confuse Whole Language with "Whole Word" which,as Kohn points out in his book, is different from WL and is more related to DI(revealingly this makes your critique of WL and your subsequent beration of Mr. Kohn silly and absurd as it would mean that you are actually criticizing a piece of the very DI program you claim to support. "Whole Word" is about memorization and recitation of isolated words and their sounds but not actual comprehension and contextual phonetic awareness). Secondly, your criticism of Mr.Kohn for not mentioning that the House et al. study was funded by the Ford Foundation is also silly and absurd. The Ford Foundation is a nonpartisan, research based group that was deliberatly brought in by the primary analysts to assess the structure and conclusions of the Follow Through study (why do you find that so troubling, considering you have a habit of claiming that they've funded "failed" studies, but never offer citaions or explain why you think they're wrong) The citaions you do provide, however, still don't prove your case at all. The critique of the Schweinhart-Weikart study was simply a philosophical critique by someone who was already partial to DI in the first place (considering that the guy was a memeber of a DI advocacy group, I suspect that he did some spinning of the data himself in order to make it look as though Schweinhart et al. fell on their face so as to rescure DI). The other citation you provide concerning House et al. actually supports them in some respects such as when they acknowledge and concurred with House et al's looking at sites rather than individuals. In that study, statistical error had to be factored in because the enviroment and the features promoted by the DI program itself had to be assessed in order for there to be a reliable way to compare it with non-DI(although I disagree wth how they defined the non-DI groups, which aren't in fact opposed to phonetic awareness or comprehension, because they included some features of DI in the non-DI and they simply watered down the non-DI in order to save DI). Your remark about Mr.Kohn's statement concerning whether its even possible to measure children's cognitive sophistication with a standardized test (ie letting them write about something or give their own response to a test item) and then claiming he didn't give an answer beacuse his previous statements didn't "merit" one is outrageous. If you had actually read his book, you would have seen the chapter "Getting Evaluation Wrong: Standardized Testing and Its Victims" where he clearly spells out why these tests can't tell us about the things that matter (his critque of norm-referenced testing is particularly enlightening). In short, I think that you've made factual errors, deliberately misled readers, and tried to advance an argument that never has and never will have any merit. Your mocking of Gerald Bracey and Jonathan Kozol is particulary digusting beacuse these men have spent their entire careers trying to help children learn especially the ones in the inner cities.