A favourite opening gambit for many educational trainers and academics is to show the following quote:

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

This is followed by a request for the audience to name the person or time that this was coined before revealing, with the air of showing the final 15 minutes of the Sixth Sense, that it is attributed to Socrates. This eureka moment, “my word, you mean children have always displayed rebellious and selfish behaviours”, was rather striking the first time I encountered it. It has since lost much of its appeal but does serve as reminder of one thing; children are human beings with a similar plethora of needs, insecurities and outright faults that the rest of us have, perhaps even in larger measures. Anyone who recounts views of their own school days as filled with well-behaved conscientious and helpful students with a healthy respect for their elders is being nostalgic, selective or outright delusional.

It also serves as reminder that almost none of the arguments within education are new, the vocational vs. academic debate has raged in the UK for centuries, often tied up with issues of class. During the 18th century education was still predominantly centred around the middle classes with schooling designed around the kind of professions an individual was expected to go into. Educational reform at the turn of the 19th century rested on ideas of universal access to education but also on ideas of preparing a society for the continued growth of democracy, industry and preparation of future leaders. Ken Robinson put it nicely when he said that everyone has a vested interest in education because it’s supposed to take us into a future we can’t grasp.

Technology in the classroom
Photo: Dangerously Irrelevant; Licence: CC BY 3.0, New technologies in the classroom could make assessment of learning objectives easy, automated and individualised.

Many people have different answers to the question “What is the purpose of education?” but most will include huge elements of preparative talk. We guess that people will need a more than solid grasp of reading and writing, some knowledge of historical events and an understanding of the constantly changing scientific and technologically driven fields. On top of this we might think that an understanding of social interaction, a familiarity with routines, dealing with authority figures as well as meeting deadlines and making the link between hard work and rewards. Sounds a lot like preparing to have a job, and perhaps that’s the point.

Herein lies a problem though; if school is meant to prepare children for work, then it fails. Work has some crucial aspects which are entirely absent from school. First, and understandably enough, there is no monthly pay cheque and, while a child does not need a monthly pay cheque in the same way as an adult, it does deprive them of a very important cost-benefit link. Second there is effectively no penalty for lateness or inappropriate conduct other than a talking to, again lacking the real connection: late/rude/lazy = no job = no money. This is all dancing around the issue that there is no incentive for children to learn, or rather that the incentives are so long term as to be imperceptible to a child. Some believe us when we tell them about the benefits of a good education and the pitfalls of a bad one but many just parrot the party line and don’t really understand it’s truth or meaning. And how can we really expect them to?

Ken Robinson put it nicely when he said that everyone has a vested interest in education because it’s supposed to take us into a future we can’t grasp.

I asked one student in my class what he wanted to be when he left school, attempting to provoke some thought about the consequences of his actions in the here and now. He answered my question with a rhetorical question of his own “a job’s a job, innit?” It struck me then that I was mad to expect this 13-year-old to have any conception of the differences in status, life quality, job satisfaction and training requirements between say an architect and a kitchen porter. It’s a very difficult situation to grasp if you haven’t seriously considered or experienced at least one of these careers. One day he will know the answer to his own non-rhetorical question; No, a job is not a job, a job can be unpleasant, difficult, unrewarding, claustrophobic and depressing. You can acquire qualifications and experience to give yourself options which may yield a more interesting or satisfying career opportunity. However, by the time he learns this he will already have used up his shot at a free education for better or for worse. This is a lesson we can’t expect children to learn, even if we can get them to repeat it back to us and say that they understand it. One only has to listen to adults with poor literacy skills who lament their wasted youth: “I just want little Davey to have the opportunities I never did” or “I don’t want him to take the hard road like I did”. This is never accompanied by a revelation that they are now attending night school or making similar attempts to lead by example. It is simply an empty platitude that children learn to say and then ignore, just as they see others do.

I don’t say this to show distain for these people, or to moralise at anyone. It simply highlights what I see as the most crucial problem in education: people will not do anything just because you tell them what a good idea it is. No matter how solid the thought process is in your own head or how dogmatically you repeat the mantra, if you cannot demonstrate an immediate and tangible benefit of doing something then you will have a hard time securing the investment of anyone.

Research has shown that increasing parental engagement using even simple measures like a short weekly parenting course is incredibly effective in improving later life chances of the child and there have been calls to secure buy-in from lower income parents through tax relief. Some research has negated the idea that offering financial incentives to teachers based on student test scores will yield any noticeable benefits. However, important though incentivising both these groups are, it is not directly incentivising the children, who are of course the most important ones from which to secure buy-in. The research shows large size effects when students are offered financial incentives to master learning objectives. These effects can last a long time and, contrary to the popular wives’ tale, they do not reduce the child’s intrinsic motivation. As a tutor for wealthier families, I was often told by parents that they would never pay their children rewards for achievements in school grades, which of course should always come solely from an inner desire to succeed. I noted that this convenient piece of fiction went out the window for any children who became pot-smoking, disengaged truants and suddenly all economic measures would be brought to bear on them to drag them back from the brink of failure.

The learning effects are greatest when the incentives of all three, student, parent and teacher are aligned in the same direction for obvious reasons. Several companies are already using simple online reward systems to a limited degree such as Vivo Miles or Epraise but they do not claim to be a substitute for an intrinsic desire to succeed.

I can see the problem, both ethically and practically, of paying students a salary for their school work. However I have a feeling that doing so may be overcomplicating the issue. I recently read an article in the Washington Post about Alexis Wiggins, a veteran of 15 years’ teaching, who spent the first two days of her new job following a student, learning the same lessons, doing the same work and carrying out the same tests. Among her choicest adjectives are exhausting, anxious, stressed, lethargic and drained: “Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”

The research shows large size effects when students are offered financial incentives to master learning objectives. These effects can last a long time and, contrary to the popular wives’ tale, they do not reduce the child’s intrinsic motivation.

Screen Shot 2015 03 31 at 15.26.52
Image: Eurydice – Key Data on Education in Europe, Diagram showing the levels of autonomy for schools in EU countries.

We do expect students to sit all day, and if they achieve what we want them to achieve, we give them more. If they don’t achieve it, we may get them back during their break or we may say fine and leave it at that. There is either a minute negative incentive to complete the work, or no incentive at all. The children will be sitting for five to six hours regardless of what they do. If they produce outstanding work in that time they can expect a pat on the back from a teacher and possibly a phone call home at best.

The work a student should complete in a 50 minute to one hour lesson usually consists of two to three lesson objectiveslike the following for a recent year 8 class of my own:

Describe what an alloy is and why they are useful.
Describe the effects of alloying on melting points.
Explain why alloys are tougher than pure metals.

Each of these can be answered to a Key Stage 3 level in a sentence and their application can be practiced and tested with some very simple questions. The whole affair should take around 15 to 20 minutes. Yet it doesn’t. Kids have a chat, daydream for a few moments, ask tangential questions and generally wait out the clock, completing the activities if they feel so inclined and if they are appropriately scaffolded as to be immediately accessible. This would appear to be a major contributing factor to the stretching out of 2 hours worth of learning aims into a six-hour-day. My immediate question is why don’t we structure a child’s lessons to last as long as it takes for the learning outcomes to be attained? If we set up a system whereby the student can spend a maximum of one hour on the objectives and a minimum of whatever they are capable of we immediately provide a directly proportional incentive to students in the form of their own free time. Many companies use this style of reward in the form of half-days on Fridays or similar schemes whereby the focus is on goal achievement rather than putting in the hours.

This would require some careful thought but is becoming more and more feasible with the advent of technology. One can immediately see the ease with which applications like Duo Lingo come up with short tests on specific topics. Many schools now have personalised key card systems which could be activated for students who achieve their daily requirements and give them access to game rooms, sports areas or other enjoyable extracurricular activities. I have found little to no research in this area and my thoughts are therefore entirely speculative. However, I am optimistic that research would show real benefits for students in an academic sense as well as promoting a sense of pride, enjoyment and investment in their school by making it a place they enjoy spending time for at least part of the day.

Part of the problem is that this system would have to implemented school-wide, and restructuring an entire school is no mean feat. It is, however, doable. All EU countries have at least partial autonomy in the teaching methods they choose and all but Slovakia and Luxembourg have full or partial autonomy in their grouping and internal assessment of pupils. There are, as far as I can see, no discernible barriers to implementing this simple idea. Though we would be foolish to believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to education I am firmly convinced that securing student buy-in is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success. I hope that some day soon we can discover if the concept has any merit.

Cover photo: Dangerously Irrelevant; Licence: CC BY 3.0

  • mm

    Michael O'Keeffe is a former editor of Brain and Legs for E&M. He holds a Master's in Chemistry from Oxford University and a PGCE from Christ Church Canterbury University. He is currently a science teacher living in London. He grew up in Northern Ireland before moving to England for university. He enjoys travel, debates and writing about social and political issues.

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