24 August 2009

Ditching carrots and sticks

I’ve been waiting to see this talk, and am not disappointed. To sum up: Businesses try to improve productivity using rewards, but rewards impair performance on many kinds of tasks. Performance is enhanced more by mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

Dan Pink puts all of this in the context of business: business works an an incentive, reward-bases system that only produces results in a very narrow range of tasks.

Education is suffering from the same problem as business. If anything, education is far worse off.

Increasingly, what we want students to do is not simply master rules. (There are some exceptions, perhaps: basic arithmetic, maybe.) We want students to learn how to learn, solve problems, develop their bullshit detectors. We want people to be able to solve “candle problems,” as Pink puts it.

But education is mired as deeply in this incentive structure as business; arguably more so. What are A grades if not carrots? What are F grades if not sticks?

Being an academic and an instructor, I should be able to do something about this in my own classes, right? Frankly, I’m too gutless to try. Academia does not look kindly upon instructors who try to throw those carrots and sticks away. I think a lot of students would also revolt.

So far, I have only the inkling of one idea how to tackle this. Pink talks about a couple of companies who let their employees work on anything they want for 10-20% of the time. That might be a starting point: not prescribing topics, but allowing students to have part of their grade rest on doing a project that was important or interesting to them.

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