What about Vocabulary? V

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! I left you on Monday with this thought, which I addressed just a bit on Tuesday:

Oddly, I find myself very opposed to adult authority figures‘ “paying students for grades” as this retired teacher in California is planning to do … but I’m very much in favor of learners’ paying each other for the use of learning materials they create. What’s up with that? Am I an utter hypocrite? Or is there a real difference between the two situations?

Today I’ll try to answer these questions, and I’ll try to connect the answers to the core values of Tres Columnae and to the larger issues about vocabulary – and learning – that we’ve been addressing in this series of posts.

I actually have a lot of sympathy with the motivations of the retired teacher, who (according to the article), had noticed that students at the highest-achieving school in the district did have a sense of ownership of their academic achievement, while those at the school he’s targeting did not. Unfortunately, all the research about effects of extrinsic motivators predicts that his effort will produce the exact opposite of what he hopes. Study after study shows that when learners are offered extrinsic rewards (coupons, food, money, you name it), their academic performance actually declines over time. Yes, they initially do (or at least act as if they’re doing) the behaviors that earn the rewards, but over time, their focus on the rewards causes them to lose interest in the task. It’s a humbling body of research for teachers and school administrators, to say the least!

I found it serendipitous that this article showed up as we were considering both Vocabulary, broadly defined, and Roman Slavery, broadly defined, in our series of blog posts. Why? Because I think “paying for grades” has some remarkable connections with both of these big ideas. In terms of Vocabulary, it seems to me that, in the end, “paying for grades” is just a nice word for “bribery” – the immediate reward (of learning something new and useful) isn’t enough, and neither is the long-term reward (of graduating from high school, or getting into college, or getting a good job), so we “sweeten the pot” with another reward. As for Roman Slavery, dominī were always giving their servī some pecūlium, or renting them out to others and splitting the proceeds with them. The pecūlium, in this case, is the “extra reward” that’s needed when even the immediate reward (of not being killed or beaten for disobedience) or the longer-term reward (of being praised by the master as a “good” servant) isn’t enough to get the task done.

The problem with pecūlium, of course, is that the need for it doesn’t go away over time.  How likely is it that a servus, having received pecūlium in exchange for some horrible task, will suddenly tell his dominus that there’s no longer a need to pay him?  In the same way, once you start down the slippery slope of “paying for A’s,” it’s very unlikely that a student will suddenly refuse the money!  Far from increasing the motivation of the servus – or of the student – the monetary “reward” actually decreases his or her motivation!

I really don’t think we want to create an even greater power imbalance between teacher and student by bringing pecūlium into it … especially when the pecūlium comes, as it inevitably must, from an outside source who is thereby asserting power over both the teacher and the students! And yet, I can certainly empathize with Mr. Warren, the teacher mentioned in the article. I’m sure he has no sinister intent at all! In fact, I’m sure he sincerely wants to help the students he’s offering money to, and I’m also sure he thinks that paying them would be the best possible way.  It’s sadly typical, I think, for us adult authority figures (especially those of us who work in schools) to design “rewards” or “incentives” without actually consulting the people we’re attempting to reward.  Then, of course, we complain when they don’t find our “rewards” very rewarding! 😦

So, given that I’m deeply suspicious of adult-imposed extrinsic rewards, why would I design the Tres Columnae system so that learners (and teachers) could benefit financially from high-quality work they contribute? Isn’t that just the same as Mr. Warren’s $100 and $500 checks for straight-A report cards?  Obviously I don’t think so, or we wouldn’t have included royalties and credits as part of the system … but what’s the difference?

quid respondētis, amīcī?  Is there a difference or not???

Tune in next time, when I’ll try to outline some ways that (nostrā quidem sententiā) Tres Columnae’s reward system is completely different from a “pay for A’s” plan.  Then we’ll switch gears and look at another new story … focusing on an entirely different aspect of the Tres Columnae system.  intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.


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