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.
As luck would have it, Sherman Dorn showed up in the comments to defend his analysis.
Let me take this opportunity to elaborate on my initial criticism. I'll begin by pointing out that I'm not taking a position with respect to the efficacy of any of the proposed plans. I'm merely criticizing the analyses as being superficial and/or ill-informed. I'll address half of Sherman's analysis in this post and tackle the other half in an other post.
Sherman has two main criticisms of paying for student performance. The first criticism is:
[One] problem with paying students cash for achievement, and that is the question of the reward itself: will it promote continued effort, or will it be tangential to effort?
Apparently, what Sherman means by "tangential to effort" is that rewards are appropriate only "when their use is intimately tied to additional effort."
This definition is unnecessarily limiting.
For a stimulus (such as paying cash) to be a positive reinforcer (or a reward) for a student it must increase the future occurrence of the behavior that will follow. If a stimulus doesn't increase the future occurrence of the desired behavior, it simply is not rewarding or reinforcing for the student. The "tangentialness" of the stimuli is largely irrelevant.
Let's say we have a classroom full of elementary school students. Some like to read, others do not. The behavior we would like see increase is the incidence of reading. We would like all the children to read more because practicing reading helps one become a better reader. To achieve this, we want to find stimuli that will exert some control over each student and motivate them to read more. Stimuli that actually increase the desired behavior (in this case reading) are called positive reinforcers.
There are three main categories of reinforcers that are typically available to a classroom teacher:
- Social reinforcers: involve the student’s behavior—words of praise, attention, smiles, nearness.
- Token reinforcers: are things such as money, poker chips, points, and gold stars that can be exchanged for other reinforcers.
- Activity reinforcers: are activities children like to participate in when given a chance. These might include running, games, art activities, singing, eating, recesses, going home.
For a stimuli to be a reinforcer it must serve to increase the desired behavior. If an an atta-boy from the teacher (social reinforcer) motivates the child to read more it is a reinforcer. If the attaboy does not increase the behavior, it is not a reinforcer. For this child a piece of candy (token reinforcer) might serve as a motivator. For other children additional recess time or a trip to the library (Sherman's example) (activity reinforcers) might be motivators. All the stimuli I've listed might validly serve to promote the "continued effort" of reading.
The flaw in Sherman's analysis is that for most children the trip to the library will not serve as a positive reinforcer because the child most likely already enjoys engaging in the desired behavior, i.e., reading, already. Children who don't like to read are likely not going to find going to the library to be rewarding. And, for those children that do like to read, taking a trip to the library, ostensibly to get more books to read, probably is not increasing the future occurence of the behavior (assuming that the child has sufficient reading material available to him).
I suppose trips to the library might, in very rare cases, serve as a positive reinforcer for a child. Perhaps the child is a connoisseur of library architecture. Perhaps the child loves taking trips, even to libraries, Or perhaps the child is a fan of the Dewey Decimal system. But, I don't think this is what Sherman had in mind.
This also highlights the large catch-22 in Sherman's analysis; only students who already find reading to be enjoyable are likely to be motivated by stimuli "intimately tied" to the activity of reading. Sherman's "intimately tied" limitation effectively forecloses our ability to find reinforcers for students who do not find the underlying behavior we are seeking to increase to be rewarding--the children who most need the motivation.
This flawed analysis leads to a spurious conclusion:
We know that Pizza Hut is engaged in marketing rather than a promotion of reading because it rewards kids with pizza instead of with books.
Both pizza and books are neutral stimuli. Handing a kid a stack of books will not necessarily motivate him to read those books, especially if the child does not find reading to be rewarding already. Unread books do not promote reading.
Pizza, on the other hand, can be token reinforcer for a child who already likes engaging in the activity of, say, eating pizza. The child may be motivated to read a book for the reward of getting a pizza to eat. This would promote reading because the child has increased the amount of books he has read in order to get the reward, the pizza. In fact, operant psychology holds that if a learning activity (reading) is followed by a known reinforcer (pizza), the learning activity (reading) will become a conditioned reinforcer (reading for its own sake). To make the transition it is only necessary to use appropriate procedures to fade out the special reinforcement system.
And, the fact that Pizza Hut is engaging in marketing (its own self-interest) doesn't change this analysis at all. As Adam Smith so famously put it:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.
Sherman is mistaken. Rewards/reinforcers do not have to be intimately tied to the underlying desired behavior for them to be effective. To be a reward/reinforcer the only condition is that the reward/reinfocer actually increase or promote the desired behavior.
(Continued in Part Two.)