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Monday, July 26, 2010

Contracts may work better than guilt or grades for motivation

The culture of academics is to pretend to be "above money." Even Harvard Business School professors downplay their consulting fees as personal motivation inside the Ivied walls. "Filthy lucre" is an applause line, however hypocritical.

As a result, schools are of two minds when it comes to prodding students. They want to pretend that students should be taught to love every subject and be motivated out of intrinsic intellectual excitement. So they use guilt and moralizing. But of course in parallel, schools wield grades (and consequently control over a students' future) like a child over an ant hill with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.

The motivating frameworks may need to be calibrated.

  • Where students love a topic, the best thing to do is get out of their way.
  • But for the core of "need to know" skills, and specifically self-paced accomplishments in productive reading, writing, and math, contracts may be the better mechanism. The outside world has evolved the concept in a way that makes sense: In exchange for accomplishing __, using tools ___, by date __, to a quality level of __, you get __, and if you don't, you get penalized __.

Children naturally see this as being fair, especially if they agree to the individual terms. Most "payments" won't be lucre, but instead computer time, or movies, or staying up later, or some other part of the day. It also develops a meta-skill of contracting and negotiations that will serve them well their entire productive lives.

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