A radically natural approach to education

A company decides to try a new incentive structure. First, they hire people who are on welfare or have inheritances, folks who, one way or another have enough money to get by.

They tell these employees that their superiors are going to give them marks based on their performance and effort. The marks are somewhat subjective and not worth anything tangible. Maybe the marks will open doors to higher-level employment someday where that they can earn more marks, also not worth anything tangible.

And beyond that? Well, the marks can give you a sense of pride that you’re working well, but really, you shouldn’t be working for the marks. You should be working for the fun of working.

Still, if employees want to focus on practicalities, maybe a decade or two from now, though no one will see them, the marks will position them to get the real paying jobs which they’ll need by then if the welfare or inheritances run out. In that way, the marks are more like an iffy internship which just might lead to a paid job in the future. And then again, some people get great paying jobs without ever working for marks.

Most people would guess that this is a weak incentive system, not likely to put much focused fire in employees’ bellies. The marks are just too abstract and pie in the sky. You’d need to be very good at abstract long-term thinking to be motivated by them.

So here’s what’s peculiar: This is the just the incentive structure we use to motivate children to learn in school, children, who are much worse at abstract thinking and long term planning than adults. Absurdly, we rely on abstract arguments to motivate youth, the people least able to grasp abstract arguments. If motivating with abstract marks and long-term goals isn’t productive with mature adults, what makes us think it will be productive with kids?

Perhaps nothing. It’s just tradition, a carry-over from a time when adults had more authority and kids did what they were told. Back then, the real incentive was not getting your knuckles rapped with rulers, or not ending up it hell.

We’re glad that era has mostly ended. We respect children’s opinions more. We reason with them, but that has us relying on an unreasonable incentive system, that isn’t working very well with many students.

Many people get their first riveting education on the job. They slog through school for more than a decade, bored, in a daze, going through the motions, not sure why they’re learning this esoteric stuff since it has little application to their real lives.

They only really wake up when they get money-earning jobs to survive or buy what they desire. Suddenly they’re quick studies, focused, attentive, quick to scramble up learning curves. Like adults only more so, they learn best in the school of hard knocks, not soft marks.

We worry about the effects of incentivizing school. We think that paying students to learn devalues the learning process and spoils the child. But a boss who pays employees? We never worry about that. Compensating workers is the norm. We don’t think it devalues work.

I wonder what it would be like if we compensated students the way we compensate workers. It would be a radical shift yet toward the incentives we rely upon to motivate most other work. It would ruffle lots of feathers and insult lots of pedagogical sensibilities.

What if tuition included money that goes directly to students? What if students were not just told that learning was their current job, but paid as though it were? What if they had to earn a base pay to keep a roof over their heads? What if they bought cell phones with income earned by going to school, or bought luxuries on time, having to pay monthly from their education earnings to keep them?

As a Ph.D. with two masters, I swoon over the abstract arguments for education, but then I’m an old guy. Until about 20, I really had no idea why I was studying. I would have been better off working a job for most of my early years. I would have understood concrete incentives.

I haven’t got this all figured out, but I think concrete incentives for learning are an interesting possibility appropriate to our era.

Here’s a related New Yorker article about vocational amusement parks(link is external).

Author’s Book

© Copyright 2015 Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.