Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bribing Your Kids: Incentivized Learning

An article in today's paper about school systems which award financial incentives for student achievement raises interesting questions. I am all for it, for the simple reason that: IT WORKS. One of the main reasons we educate children is so that they will be able to be self-supporting adults who contribute to society. That's very abstract for a lot of kids. So I see nothing wrong with incentivizing learning in the here and now, to help get them to that later point.
I first learned about the Power of the Bribe from my friend Sharon. Her very bright son was not memorizing his multiplication tables. Not clear if it was an attention issue or just a kid who didn't really care if he learned multiplication tables, or both. Sharon decided, before bringing in the tutors and therapists, to offer him $25 if he could memorize the tables by 3:00 that Friday afternoon. That was a lot of money for a 3rd grader. He pulled it off. As we speak, he is finishing up his MBA, so it proved to be an effective intervention.
A few years later we had a 2nd grader who persisted in writing some of his numbers backwards on his math homework. The teachers were becoming concerned about this, so of course as a dutiful Mom, I got on it. Our pediatrician recommended a holistic approach: a team of a psychologist, occupational therapist, tutor, and himself. Geez. Four professionals! I could hear the cash register ding! Then I got a grip. The kid was writing numbers backwards, not torturing cats or failing 2nd grade. I recalled Sharon's experience with her son, and decided to offer Zach $10 if, by the end of the week, he could hand every math paper in with NO BACKWARDS NUMBERS. This incentive focused his attention. (There was no collective bargaining, since he didn't know Noam had gotten $25.)
Zach managed this feat, and we paid him off, happily. By my calculation, we saved about $1000. Obviously it doesn't work in every case, but it doesn't hurt to give it a try....


Anonymous said...

I think it can work is a few specific cases such as you mentioned, but the widespread use of rewards has some major drawbacks.

I'd recommend you take a look at the book "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn for an alternative viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for contributing this post to this week's Carnival of Family Life, hosted at Modern Sage -- Practical Living Blog. The Carnival will be live tomorrow, so please stop by and peruse all of the wonderful articles submitted this week!

Beth Aronson said...

Betsy, I'm glad to find this early in Katie's life! As a psychologist, I'm all about using rewards to motivate behavior, and if money is the reinforcer that works on occasion-heck, why not!?