On Corrective Incentives

SteelyKid’s kindergarten teacher is big on incentives and prizes– there are a number of reward bags that get sent home with kids who excel in some particular area. I’m not entirely sure what’s in these, because SteelyKid hasn’t gotten any yet.

This isn’t because she misbehaves– from all reports, she’s very good– but she’s in a class with 21 other kids, and they’ve only been in school for a couple of weeks. Still, she regards this as a grave injustice, and I occasionally get aggrieved reports about the distribution of reward bags when I pick her up from after-school day care. I try to explain to her that, yes, she may have been perfectly silent during quiet time, but if everybody in the class is perfectly silent and there’s only one Quietest Student reward bag, her teacher just has to pick one of the perfectly silent people to give it to. Sort of like the Nobel Prize, really.

She fails to find this convincing, particularly when the bags are used not just to reward but to encourage. Last night’s grievance was that she had not received the Best Hallway Manners bag, despite being really good in the hallway, while her classmate Redacted got the bag even though he was “talking, and talking, and talking, and that’s not good hallway manners.” This was the biggest injustice of all time.

And while it’s a really hard sell to a five-year-old with a five-year-old’s sense of fairness, I can understand why this might happen. We get almost nightly reports about Redacted misbehaving in one way or another (her teacher very charitably described SteelyKid as a “mother hen,” though “junior busybody” is probably more accurate). So even if Redacted was talking in the hall, that might’ve represented a dramatic improvement over running, yelling, and touching other kids, and thus deserving of reward. The Best Hallway Manners bag went to Redacted not because he was the best by an objective standard, but by a relative standard– he did way better than in the past, and the teacher wants to encourage that.

But again, good luck explaining that to a five-year-old. “Yes, honey, it’s unfair to you, but it’s unfair in a small way in service of a greater good.”

But, of course, the impulse to use rewards as corrective incentives is not restricted to the kindergarten ranks. I’ve had people who teach college students tell me that they won’t use standard grading rubrics for written work because they want to be able to use grades in a relative way. A merely acceptable paper by an outstanding student might get a B+, for example, while the exact same paper handed in by a mediocre student might get an A-. (“Exact same” in a counterfactual sense, mind– if both students hand in the exact same paper for the same assignment, they both get F’s…) Because the good student could do better, while the weaker student should be rewarded for a better-than-expected effort.

Personally, I find that kind of boggling, but that’s probably mostly because I’m a scientist married to a lawyer. I’m all about objective standards and bright-line rules.

And it’s not like being old enough to understand the greater good behind the “unfair” distribution of incentives does any good, as Timothy Burke describes in the context of campus parking:

In general, despite the seeming impact of policies like congestion pricing in London, life does not really work out as it does in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Because even in general, most people know what the incentive is trying to get them to do, and they even know that the whole apparatus is like one of the humane chutes that Temple Grandin designed for cattle butcheries. Unlike cattle, they’re not soothed by technocratic chutes: they get more and more agitated as the kill floor approaches, particularly when they get a glimpse of someone in a white coat with a checklist observing the incentive machine in action. People have more agency than cows, and if there’s anything that mobilizes them to perverse or unpredictable ends, it’s the sense that they’re being made to do something by someone who thinks that people are too stupid to even notice they’re being made to do something.

(That’s maybe a tiny bit hyperbolic, but in an enjoyable way. Which is why I link to him all the time– there are weeks when I think I should just replace this blog with a plain HTML page directing everyone to Easily Distracted and Dot Physics.)

Of course, there’s a long way between the Best Hallway Manners bag and campus parking incentives. We’ll do the best we can to inculcate a sense of the greater good in SteelyKid, and an understanding that sometimes things that aren’t “fair” to her personally are, in fact, in the service of justice at a higher sort of level.

But man, that’s a hard sell right now.

6 thoughts on “On Corrective Incentives

  1. I work as a private tutor which means I have kids whose grades ar’n’t so good. I had one kid who was regularly turning in C minuses in test and then who suddenly got a straight A (without cheating) on a major exam the teacher instead of giving him the A gave him a B minus because he “didn’t deserve” the A. I just thought WTF and that’s supposed to encourage him?

  2. I have noted that if helps the mediocre if they are charming and endearing. But while on the matter of subjective grading: back in the ’80’s I taught an advanced QM (post master’s) course using Gordon Baym’s book as a reference text. Short semester format and I assigned a homework problem every week but first and last with two weeks to work on. The problems were designed to showcase the tools and techniques covered in lecture. Grading was mostly on how the problem was approached and worked, when assumptions and approximations were applied, ….

  3. I’ve never heard of incentive bags before. Our school in suburban Maryland gives out tickets for good behavior. At the end of the week the students can trade them in for small things like plastic toys. They can also get rewards like sitting with a special friend at lunch, being a line leader in the halls, or even eating lunch with the teacher. That’s apparently a reward when you’re six.

  4. I get the impression that S-K is well able for things, and probably comes across as pretty confident, and the teacher is focusing their attention on students that need improvement/encouragement.

    The solution is probably to give S-K more work to do. The rewards of labour being constant toil, etc.

  5. As someone who was the “good student,” I hated this trend of teachers to give incentives to kids for doing the minimum. I hated it more when I was punished for it.

    I remember working my butt off in a multimedia class each day, going well beyond the requirements, working during lunch time and study hall. I was frustrated that people in my group and other groups were slacking off but figured I’ll be happy come grade time. Before grades, other ppl panicked and began coming in before and after school to catch up. They were given A’s. I got a B+. The reason? The teacher admitted I did the best work, but I had “more potential.” If only I would come in before and after school, he lamented. I explained that the reason I worked my butt off during class, was because I had to ride the bus which arrived 15 minutes before class. After school, I had rehearsals. He didn’t care.

    Did it motivate me? No, I began doing the minimal and didn’t make an effort to come in during lunch and study hall. I was asked to help the teacher produce something for the school’s TV program (as if it were an honor), but refused. I just wanted nothing to do with multimedia after the discussion I had with that teacher. He screwed up my GPA, I didn’t want anything to do with him after that.

    The most frustrating part was that I knew he was just using his grading power to manipulate me. Perhaps in his head, it would help me out in the long run. Perhaps he thought he was clever. This thought just made me more bitter.

    Okay, I’ll end the rant.

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