Rethinking Rewards in School

Read full article at the Mind/Shift website:

“Rewards can be seductive, according to Marvin Berkowitz, a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of You Can’t Teach Through a Rat. They’re easy, they seem to work—particularly with the hard-to-reach kids—and many teachers are taught according to the behaviorist model, which posits that people repeat conduct that’s reinforced and avoid what’s punished. “We are breeding a new generation of kids who are well trained to be reward and recognition torpedoes,” Berkowitz writes.

“But a substantial body of social science research going back decades has concluded that giving rewards for certain types of behavior is not only futile but harmful. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsDaniel Pink identifies seven drawbacks to extrinsic rewards: they cripple intrinsic motivation, limit performance, squash creativity, stifle good conduct, promote cheating, can become habit-forming, and spur a short-term mindset. Giving prizes for routine and mindless tasks can be moderately effective, Pink writes. But offering rewards for those tasks that are “inherently interesting, creative, or noble…is a very dangerous game.” When it comes to promoting good behavior, extrinsic rewards are “the worst ineffective character education practice used by educators,” Berkowitz writes.”


In-group Empathy vs. Out-group Empathy


In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.

Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. Ignoring this fact carries a heavy cost: We become paralyzed by the unachievable demands we place on ourselves. We can see this in our public discourse today. Discussions of empathy fluctuate between worrying that people don’t empathize enough and fretting that they empathize too much with the wrong people. These criticisms both come from the sense that we have an infinite capacity to empathize, and that it is our fault if we fail to use it.

At War with the Press

Book Review: Lincoln and the Power of the Press 


Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion

 By Harold Holzer, Simon & Schuster 2014, $37.50

Abraham Lincoln understood the power of the press. From early in his career, he subscribed to multiple papers, courted editors and tracked reports of his remarks. Following the debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, he gathered newspaper transcripts of his speeches and had them published. Lincoln so firmly grasped the influence of the press that he became a partner in a German-language paper in Springfield—and concealed his ownership.  Newspapers shaped public opinion and “he who moulds public sentiments,” Lincoln proclaimed, “goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

That insight from 1858 serves as the epigraph for Harold Holzer’s sweeping work. It has been more than 60 years since anyone has written on this vast topic, and for good reason. A study of Lincoln and the press requires biographical expertise as well as knowledge of the history of journalism. Holzer, of course, is a prolific Lincoln scholar. But earlier in his career he also was a newspaper reporter and press secretary. In this book, he has drawn on a lifetime of experience and study to produce the definitive work on the subject.

Throughout the book, Holzer weaves together Lincoln’s story with an account of the careers of many prominent editors, perhaps none more important than Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald and Henry J. Raymond of The New York Times. Greeley provoked and embarrassed the administration; Bennett once called Lincoln a “joke incarnated”; Raymond supported William Seward in 1860. Each editor was represented in a clippings file that Lincoln labeled “Villainous articles.” The story of Lincoln’s relationship with these men, and how it shaped the war effort, constitutes a central focus of the book.

In one well-known example from August 1862, Greeley excoriated the president in an editorial for not moving against slavery, and Lincoln responded publicly with a piece in the conservative National Intelligencer reassuring Americans that he would not interfere with slavery unless he had to, yet at that moment he had already prepared a draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Holzer labels the episode an example par excellence of “Lincoln’s genius for synchronized press manipulation.”

Tempestuous Greeley could be kept in check; Democratic editors opposed to the war posed a more alarming threat. Administration efforts to censor the press included controlling telegraph lines, suppressing military news, shutting down presses and imprisoning newspapermen. Lincoln made few overt comments on the subject in the summer of 1861, as several editors were jailed, but his “silence, defection,  and disinformation,” Holzer notes, amounted to approval. Two years later, again using the device of a published letter, Lincoln defended as constitutional the measures his administration had taken to suppress the rebellion.

Through the lens of Lincoln and reportage, Holzer offers an important perspective on the war and has unearthed fresh material. An added pleasure of the volume is the numerous portraits and cartoons that are not simply illustrative but are made integral to the story he tells. Lincoln and the Power of the Press deserves a wide audience and a place on the list of essential Civil War books.

Unconscious Bias

Schools, teachers, teaching and consequently students seem to be the guinea  pigs for every social, cultural, psychological, pedagogical, psychiatric, and technological concept that can be conjured up and articulated. Many are presented as essential for student success, however, unverifiable, unproven, untried and with underlying nefarious purposes including monetary profit and political gain. Take the term “unconscious bias” currently being promulgated throughout our school systems–at least those systems subject to state direction. It appears that the term was coined to support accusations of what appear to be unfair selections and treatments based on race. I have read a few articles and study summaries on the subject and my thinking is that while all humans are most likely unconsciously bias about something, the common acceptance of the term as a ‘thing’ is silly and can and most certainly is dangerous. It is akin to the old psychiatrist joke, “Why did you hate your mother?” It is too easy to accuse someone or racial group of being unconsciously bias in making any decision or taking any action with which you disagree. Such an accusation is a pejorative judgment. It is dangerous because there is absolutely no way the accused can defend him, herself or themselves. Even attempts to deny the accusation set one up for verifying the “unconscious” aspect of the term. “Of course, he denied being biased because he is not aware that he is.” Russell’s Teapot comes to mind. And I wonder if once one is convinced that they were previously unconsciously biased in one direction, do they tend to overcompensate by being consciously, or more likely unconsciously,  biased in an opposite direction? Or something. And what if one is really not unconsciously biased, but is led to believe that they are? Are all unconscious biases bad? If so, how do we ferret them out? And how do we know when we have moved them all into the conscious realm? After all, we are not aware of them.

Bullying the Bully

Alfie Kohn in what I consider to be an obvious observation goes to some length here to make the singular point that punishing the bully is nothing more than bullying the bully and that to do so has the following results: “the child (1) becomes angry and frustrated, (2) learns that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and (3) becomes more focused on self-interest and less likely to consider how his actions affect others.” The blog references a number of supporting studies but falls short of offering meaningful alternatives options unless they are somehow coded in the final paragraph.

This shift in perspective should prompt us to transform schools from “doing to” to “working with” places, to see kids’ troubling actions not as infractions to be punished (where someone must be made to suffer) but as problems to be solved — and opportunities for teaching. If we need a simple reason to support these shifts, maybe it’s sufficient that we want to make sure our actions never resemble those of a bully.