Monday, September 10, 2012

Children in success, cognition and motivation book excerpt in Slate

The stuff about altering the motivation of children using candy as a reward is interesting, not particularly surprising, but interesting.

The M&M studies were a major blow to the conventional wisdom about intelligence, which held that IQ tests measured something real and permanent—something that couldn’t be changed drastically with a few candy-covered chocolates. They also raised an important and puzzling question about the supposedly low-IQ children: Did they actually have low IQs or not? Which number was the true measure of their intelligence: 79 or 97?


But as every middle-school teacher knows, convincing students of that logic is a lot harder than it seems. Motivation, it turns out, is quite complex, and rewards sometimes backfire. In their book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner recount the story of a study researchers undertook in the 1970s to see if giving blood donors a small financial stipend might increase blood donations. The result was actually that fewer people gave blood, not more.

And a few more things.

And while the M&M test suggests that giving kids material incentives to succeed should make a big difference, in practice, it often doesn’t work that way. In recent years, the Harvard economist Roland Fryer has essentially tried to extend the M&M experiment to the scale of a metropolitan school system. He tested several different incentive programs in public schools—offering bonuses to teachers if they improved their classes’ test results; offering incentives like cellphone minutes to students if they improved their own test results; offering families financial incentives if their children did better. The experiments were painstaking and carefully run—and the results have been almost uniformly disappointing. There are a couple of bright spots in the data—in Dallas, a program that paid young kids for each book they read seems to have contributed to better reading scores for English-speaking students. But for the most part, the programs were a bust. The biggest experiment, which offered incentives to teachers in New York City, cost $75 million and took three years to conduct. And in the spring of 2011, Fryer reported that it had produced no positive results at all.

This is the problem with trying to motivate people: No one really knows how to do it well. It is precisely why we have such a booming industry in inspirational posters and self-help books and motivational speakers: What motivates us is often hard to explain and hard to measure.

I'm going to skip a lot of material and get to the closing paragraph.  By now, I hope, you've had enough motivation to read the article for yourself. ;-)

But what Segal’s experiment suggests is that it was actually their first score, the 79, that was more relevant to their future prospects. That was their equivalent of the coding-test score, the low-stakes, low-reward test that predicts how well someone is going to do in life. They may not have been low in IQ, but they were low in whatever quality it is that makes a person try hard on an IQ test without any obvious incentive. And what Segal’s research shows is that that is a very valuable quality to possess. [emphasis added]

That's something to mull over, the possibility that the low-stakes, low-reward tests may say the most about where we end up. Many a proverb has been forged on millenia of this sort of observation. Time and chance do happen to us all but it may still prove generally true that whoever is faithful with little will be faithful with much.  The big failures of willpower and discipline happen one tiny decision at a time, it seems.  A life of mediocrity and faceless non-achievement is attained by deciding that the small stuff where there's no obvious reward for putting in extra effort isn't worth bothering with. While I agree with blogging friends about the dangers of a prosperity gospel lite if we appreciate the limited aim of wisdom literature we can appreciate that it does not necessarily promise prosperity so much as it warns us that life is full of small decisions that matter, cumulatively, more than we are able to imagine. There is a time and a place for understanding a proverb and an axiom, after all.  As a certain passage in a certain book so famously put it, to everything there is a season, and a time and a purpose for everything under the sun. 

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