The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

America is doubling down on a losing hand. Education reform policy is destined to fail because it is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of human motivation.
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The beatings will continue until morale improves.

This sentiment, sometimes attributed to Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, accurately summarizes contemporary education policy. In the 14 years since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), increasingly stressful testing and accountability measures have had no overall positive impact on educational performance. Reported successes are anecdotal, widespread, and usually attributable to factors other than those the reformers claim. Educational gerrymandering in charter schools and readjusting standards to improve "pass" rates are the most frequent techniques used to snatch public relations victory from the jaws of educational malpractice.

But 14 years of evidence be damned. Most reformers insist that we just haven't been tough enough. Assess those lazy teachers! Fire the bad ones! Discipline those low performing kids! We need higher expectations!

America is doubling down on a losing hand. Education reform policy is destined to fail because it is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of human motivation.

All humans are motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Extrinsic motivation, especially in education, is embodied in systems of rewards and punishments. Although reward and punishment seem like opposite forces, in this respect they are simply two sides of the same coin. "Ex," indicates "out of," thereby "extrinsic" means those things that are "out of" an individual. Obvious examples are grades, gold stars, M&M's, lavish parental praise, pay bonuses and so on. Someone other than the student or teacher has a hand on the levers of reward. The flip side, punishment, may be the withholding of these things or it may be more explicit punishment: "F," suspension from school, shunning, expulsion, early bedtime, no television, or spanking.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within: Self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc. Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all humans, across cultures and societies. Anyone with children or working with children observes the natural intrinsic motivation of young children - a nearly insatiable curiosity, drive to explore, and desire for mastery.

A considerable body of research confirms that intrinsic motivation is more powerful, long lasting and important. But intrinsic motivation steadily declines from 3rd grade until 8th or 9th grade as extrinsic structures dramatically increase. The stakes get higher. Tests increase in frequency and duration. Expectations around college and achievement ratchet up. Grade point averages, honor roles, valedictorians, salutatorians, class ranks, honor societies . . . all of these forms of extrinsic motivation are ubiquitous.

Distinguished American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner adds another element to explain the decline of intrinsic motivation as children grow older. Bruner and other education theorists describe the importance of learning in context. Bruner, particularly, defined social relationships and context as a critical variable in language development. John Dewey and countless others argued for the connection between education and real experience, both as a matter of philosophical conviction and pedagogical wisdom. But, as Bruner points out, learning becomes steadily de-contextualized as children move from grade to grade. As school becomes more controlled, more about instruction than exploration, more about abstraction than experience, children's natural intrinsic motivation declines. The learning is unrelated to their lives. Why would they care?

In a 1997 article, "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: A Developmental Perspective," Mark R. Lepper, Sheena Sethi, Dania Dialdin and Michael Drake summarize the research into the relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic and the effect on students and schools. Lepper et al suggest that " . . . declines in intrinsic motivation may be due to the more general social characteristics of schools . . ." The University of Michigan's Jacquelynne Eccles and Allan Wigfield have shown the negative effect that "high control" school environments have on intrinsic motivation. Teacher-directed, tightly scripted rote exercises and competition erode intrinsic motivation.

Even those learning activities that were initially driven by intrinsic motivation will weaken after they have been exposed to extrinsic structures. Let's say a student loves reading for intrinsic reasons - curiosity, self-fulfillment and enjoyment. Then the reading activity is incentivized - a treat for reading a book, a gold star on a list in the classroom. Thereafter, the intrinsic motivation for reading grows weaker. This is an extraordinarily important concept to understand in designing a school's practices, but is apparently unknown to or ignored by so-called education reformers.

Students and teachers are being subjected to increasingly punitive extrinsic structures: Scores, grades, evaluations, assessments, punishments, discipline, rigidity, standardization, absence of context, divorced from individual experience.
All the factors that stimulate and perpetuate intrinsic motivation are disappearing.

To say education reform has it wrong is a monumental understatement. Policy makers and educational reformers seem hell bent on beating students and their teachers until their morale improves.

That's just stupid.

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