The Carrot and the Cattleprod

Many years ago I wrote an article with the title The Carrot and the Cattleprod.  It’s so long ago that although I wrote it on a word processor I no longer have an electronic copy.  It’s buried and yellowing deep in a file cabinet somewhere in the basement.

So I don’t know where it is but I do remember what it was about. Influenced no doubt by Alfie Kohn’s  Punishments and Rewards it argued that incentives and painful goads had no place in learning and no place in school.

The carrots and cattleprods were the grades and empty praise that so many seem to believe essential to student motivation. It took tangential swipe at grading systems so byzantine, flawed and gameable that they reflect neither product nor process. And what a distraction from learning.  And what a waste of time.

I wrote it because I was tired of all the justifications for grades that said that they are needed motivators for students. (If that were to be the case, who is responsible for their loss of the love of learning?).

I wrote it because I was tired of the family conferences where the conversation would inevitably drift from the learning to the grade.  And I wrote it because of all those tedious dead-end debates about grade inflation and what an “A” really means.

I was arguing against grades. To get rid of them.  I did not win that battle – that kind of institutional risk taking and change in education is rare. It’s rare even when the majority know it is the right thing to do.  And not all my readers agreed it was the right thing. To some, moving away from grades must seem like writing free verse to Robert Frost – “tennis with the net down”.  Pointless.  Change is  scary and the status quo imperfect, but cozy.  And anyway – teachers are the people who generally got good grades in school – so what can be wrong with them? And standards, and quality, and excellence etc. We just need to get the assessment system right and assign grades accordingly.

And now here comes Daniel Pink following in Kohn’s footprints but from a business perspective.  I have not read Drive yet but I did watch the TEDtalk preview.

Pink speaks of the need to “tap into the deeply human need to direct our own lives to learn and create new things and to do better by ourselves and the world” This age, he says, “requires us to upgrade autonomy, mastery and purpose. And he calls on 40 years of science to show that carrot and stick motivators just don’t work.

And just to pile it on about motivation here is the Harvard Business review on the same topic: Breakthrough Ideas for 2010: What Really Motivates Workers.

Turns out, that according to these careful researchers, it’s not the big bonuses and salaries that motivate but a sense of accomplishment and progress. If it works for business, why not learning?  And of course, we know it does work. The evidence is there for the finding. So what’s getting in the way of schools applying what we know?

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