education philosopher

Whose Incentive? Which Motivation?

Posted in Book reviews, Teaching by KevinCK on December 30, 2009

Economics is premised on a tautology – a helpful one, but a tautology nonetheless. People are motivated by incentives. What is an incentive? Anything that motivates. How do we explain why Susie did x, y, z, or anything else? She must have had incentives. What are they? Could be anything that motivates her. See, a tautology.

Recently, Daniel Pink has written a book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us to discuss exactly that: what are the best incentives to action? Geared primarily towards the business world, Pink uses several studies to show that the best incentives are autonomy, mastery, and doing better by ourselves and the world.

As many of the amazon reviewers who gave Drive a low review mention, though, this conclusion is based on only a few very artificial studies. The motivational picture may well be more complicated, and maybe even more when we talk about school rather than business and children rather than adults.

Pink suggests that we went through several stages of motivation through human history. Motivation 1.0 was when motivation to work was based on basic human survival. Motivation 2.0 was the “carrot and stick approach” of rewarding externally by material goods, money, etc. Pink suggests that we are now entering motivation 3.0, where we need to realize that workers are best motivated by intrinsic rewards: the pleasure of doing the job well, the pleasure of being autonomous, and the pleasure of mastering things.

Now, let’s talk about school and kids. I think it goes without saying (even though I will say it) that the best moments of student performance happen when we have tapped into a student’s intrinsic motivations as defined above. Students do best what they derive satisfaction from doing. But here is the problem: there are many situations in school where students have to do what they do not like doing. It is an unavoidable part of the school day (wrongly lamented by progressive types who would rather see kids only do what they want to do). It can be assumed that most often, workers work in fields that they at least semi-enjoy (of course this is not always the case, but it is likely the majority). Kids, on the other hand, are compelled by the state and their parents to take biology, algebra, and civics. Thus, kids will very probably experience more situations where intrinsic motivation may either be hard to come by or impossible. (Some educationists suggest that intrinsic motivation is always possible and maybe it is if one has unlimited time to try and find it. Teachers, of course, are constrained by time and class size, so it may not always be feasible to help students find intrinsic motivation.) (more…)


Somewhere Between Fatalism and Optimism: The tragedy in education of not knowing the future

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on December 16, 2009

There are two attitudes one can take when a child is not learning at the level we expect: fatalism and optimism. The fatalistic attitude is that which leads us toward giving up and changing direction; perhaps the child is not learning the material because she is not suited for it. The optimistic attitude is that which leads us towards redoubling our efforts; perhaps she is not learning because we are not teaching it correctly, intensely, or thoroughly.

Both attitudes have positives and negatives. If the child is not learning the material because she really is not capable, fatalism may save time and the potentially bad experience of trying to force the proverbial square peg into the round hole by forcing ill-suited information into an unwilling and unable participant. But fatalism is a bad thing if it means that we give up on a child too soon who could have learned if we had persisted.

Conversely, optimism has its benefits and drawbacks. Optimism, by definition, means persistence out of desire for a good outcome. Optimism leads to good results when it leads us not to give up on a child too soon. Of course, the hoped-for scenario of where the child gets the information by our sheer persistence does not always come to pass, in which case we see the downside of optimism: the risk of forcing students to do more than they may be able to do for the sake of hope for a better result.

The reason I point out these good and bad points is that the dilemma teachers often face ove which attitude to adopt is made (dare I say) impossible by our inability to know the future. Asking a teacher whether a child is capable of learning x or not – asking them to adopt a optimistic or fatalistic attitude – is asking them to know what the child is in fact capable of, which entails knowing the future. This is because knowing what a child’s potential is is premised on the idea of knowing what the child would be able to do if educated in the right way, which entails knowing what can’t be known in advance. The best we can do when contemplating a child’s potential is to give our best educated guess, which often isn’t really that educated at all.

To elaborate further on the difficulty of gaguing a student’s capability, I want to point out how essentially unfalsifiable estimates are. Let’s suppose that we believe that Johny is capable of learning Algebra and despite our efforts, he does not show evidence of learning it. Well, we can explain this in two ways: we can suggest that maybe Johny is not equipped to learn algebra, or that we have simply not done everything necessary to teach it to him. (more…)

The Child and the Subject: a dichotomy based on a linguistic slip

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on December 15, 2009

Teach the child rather than a subject.

This and similar utterances are often uttered to suggest that teachers should be responsive to children rather than teaching a subject without regard to children. John Dewey even wrote a book about this dichotomy called The Child and the Curriculum, where he purports to do away with the dichotomy.

Unfortunately, Dewey did not do away with the dichotomy, as evidenced by the persistence of the phrase: teach the child rather than a subject. After Dewey, the debate over whether we should teach to the child’s interest or to the subject’s requirements rages on.

It occurs to me, though, that perhaps this saying – and the idea of a dichotomy between teaching children and teaching curricula – is based on a linguistic and conceptual error. To put it bluntly, instead of saying that we should teach the child rather than the subject, why wouldn’t we teach the child the subject? Answer: because for some reason we are (wrongly) using “child” and “subjeject” as subjects, rather than a subject and an object.

If I offered the sentence “Give that person than book,” the subject of the sentence is “person” and the object is “book.” The same goes for the sentence “teach that child that subject.” The subject of the sentence is “child” and the object is “subject.” We could, of course, say “teach the child rather than the subject,” but that would be as linguistic an error as saying “Give the person, not the book.” (more…)

Compared to What?: An argument for a conservative approach

Posted in Philosophy, Politics of Education by KevinCK on December 11, 2009

Recently, I watched an interesting youtube video of economist Thomas Sowell giving a talk about public schools. In response to a question about what to do over the idea that standardized testing may not be objective and may be biased, Sowell said this:

Compared to what? … That’s the question economists always ask: “Compared to what?”… Nothing is easier than to prove that something human has imperfections. I’m amazed at how many people devote themselves to that task.

This very simple statement – it almost seems like common sense! – is quite hard  for many to grasp. Whether the issue is standardized testing (whether to do away with it), or any other percieved injustice of society, many people’s reaction is to point out the flaw and use this as prima facie evidence that the system giving rise to it must be fised, abolished, or reconstructed.

Sowell’s point – one I share – is that pointing out a flaw in a thing is not the only step necessary toward arguing against the thing. The next ste – one not often taken up – is to argue that a concrete proposal for a solution will be better than and have fewer flaws than the system trying to be replaced. (more…)

Liberalism is Not Neutral or All-Inclusive: So What?

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on December 1, 2009

In political theory, a big deal is often made about critizing liberalism (small “l”) for not being the neutral, value-free, set up it allegedly pretends to be. Liberalism, of course, is the idea of a society set up so that the government refrains from the business of telling us how to live and leaves people free to pursue goals as they wish, short of harming others. Critics point out that liberalism still is not value neutral: it constrains certain things from being done (certain anti-liberal practices like refusing to send a child to school) and debate to be conducted in a certain way (in a secular way that leaves personal religious views at the door).

But here is a question: so what? What if liberalism draws lines that will inevitably restrict some from acting in ways they wish? Show me a social vision that doesn’t. (This, of course, is never done because it can’t be done. The only social vision without rules is anarchism which, as anarchists tell us, is not a system but the antithesis of one.)

Michael Sandel and Stanley Fish, two thinkers with little in common, have both seperately argued this criticism against liberalism: it pretends to be a value-free system whereby individuals can pursue their own visions but, at some point, it has to take a stand. As it is a vision of justice, it must take a stand and by taking a stand it must presuppose that certain values are superior to others. (What about the people that DON’T want to be left alone by the government? Supposing that non-interference is the highest good is to choose one good above all others.)

But the obvious retort to this is one seldom heard, and that is to affirm what is at issue. (more…)