Motivation, Cash & Literacy: I Despise AR. Should I?

This is first draft thinking if ever such a thing existed. And it’s selfish. And personal. And close to home.

Ani goes to Kindergarten in the fall, so we spent the winter investigating schools around our town. We were looking for places that felt right for us – evidence of care and thoughtfulness, ties to particular district programs that we think are valuable or hope that Ani will have an interest in in the future, that sort of thing.

We settled on a short list of three elementary schools in our school district, the district where my wife is also a teacher. One of the schools, our first choice, was full up and we didn’t get selected into it. Of the two that remained, it was a draw. Until I attended parent nights. I could tell that both schools cared about kids, but I had a real concern about one of the two schools: the use of Accelerated Reader (AR).

While I was at the parent night where I learned about the school’s use of AR, I tweeted some of my questions and concerns, and began to hear back from many people about the pros and cons of AR.1 Actually, that’s not true. There were a few lukewarm responses. But most of the replies, many of them private, were about bad2 experiences that folks and their children had with the program. Phrases like “it sucked the joy out of reading” were sent to me by friends, colleagues, and near strangers from all over my Twittersphere.

And I swore to myself, as I listened and thought and considered, that I wouldn’t expose my daughter to such a program.

And yet, Ani will begin next year in that school, where AR is a large piece, according to the principal, of the formative assessment used by the Kindergarten teachers.3

That said, I’ve got some baggage around Accelerated Reader and programs like it. And I worry that my baggage is unfounded, particularly when people I know and respect choose to use the program. I don’t get it. And that bugs me.4

I know that motivation that springs from external sources isn’t terribly motivating when the external motivator is gone. In fact, I know that such external motivation can decrease one’s intrinsic motivation for the thing that being fiddled with. I was reminded of the tension between what I know about motivation and what I see thoughtful people doing when they use AR when I stumbled across this article in Time on Saturday.

The piece is a profile of some work being done by Roland Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard, to see what effect money can have on student performance. The angle that’s interesting is that he’s not looking at how to incentivize teaching – he’s looking to see if financial incentives can impact learning. Specifically, he’s paying kids to do certain things. And it’s fascinating work, for several reasons.

For starters, he ran into considerable trouble from grown ups when he proposed doing such studies, in part because folks (like me) get hinky whenever you talk about paying kids to do well in school.5 More on that in a moment.

I’m also curious because of the way he set his tests up – there are several different models in his study, ranging from paying 2nd graders $2/book to do some reading up to paying high school students a certain amount for every good grade they earn.

The author of the article, Amanda Ripley, does a good job summing up some of Edward Deci‘s work on motivation, which I’ve relied on in the past:

The most damning criticism of Fryer came from psychologists like the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci, who has spent his career studying motivation. Deci has found that money — like other tangible rewards — does not work very well to motivate people over the long term, particularly for tasks that involve creativity. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that rewards can have the perverse effect of making people perform worse.

A classic experiment in support of this hypothesis took place at a nursery school at Stanford University in the early 1970s. There, researchers divided 51 toddlers into groups. All the kids were asked to draw a picture with markers. But one group was told in advance that they would get a special reward — a certificate with a gold star and a red ribbon — in exchange for their work. The kids did the drawings, and the ones in the treatment group got their certificates.

A few weeks later, the researchers observed the children through a one-way mirror on a normal school day. They found that the kids who had received the award spent half as much time drawing for fun as those who had not been rewarded. The reward, it seemed, diminished the act of drawing. So instead of giving kids gold stars, Deci says, we should teach them to derive intrinsic pleasure from the task itself. “What we really want is for people to value the activity of learning,” he says. People of all ages perform better and work harder if they are actually enjoying the work — not just the reward that comes later.

In principle, Fryer agrees. “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?” Most teenagers do not look at their math homework the way toddlers look at a blank piece of paper. It would be wonderful if they did. Maybe one day we will all approach our jobs that way. But until then, most adults work primarily for money, and in a curious way, we seem to be holding kids to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

In Washington, the kids did better on standardized reading tests. Getting paid on a routine basis for a series of small accomplishments, including attendance and behavior, seemed to lead to more learning for those kids. And in Dallas, the experiment produced the most dramatic gains of all. Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year — and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.

So now we come back to AR, a program where, as in Dallas, students are incentivized to read books. Maybe I shouldn’t be linking these two things, but I am, and it’s making me uncomfortable.

I’m one of those folks who thinks of questions of motivation when it comes to Accelerated Reader. I would make the case, if you asked me a week ago, that AR kills intrinsic motivation and replaces it with a token7. As soon as the tokens are gone, then so is the reason to do the thing that you were handing out the tokens for. In fact, I made that argument in a classroom last week in my school district.

And then I read this article. And it’s messing with my head.

Suppose I’m wrong about the fact that paying kids – be it through cash or other tangible stuff – doesn’t help them to improve as readers, writers and thinkers. Suppose that AR is one of those programs that, like $2/book for second graders in Texas, leads to long term gains for kids. Is that a deal worth making? I’m not sure, but I can’t discount or write it off as easily as I might like to.8

And that bugs me. Lots.

You?

  1. I also recorded a podcast about the experience. Give it a listen if you want to learn more. []
  2. terribly, horribly, awfully, no good, very bad []
  3. This post isn’t about the school, or their methodology. I’m excited to have Ani go there, although I am nervous about the experience. We’ll stay on top of it. I hope. []
  4. It fills me with terror and anxiety, actually. If I’m wrong about AR, what else am I wrong about? And AM I wrong about AR? []
  5. And we might be right to get hinky about such things. []
  6. I’m butchering the conclusions – you should really read the study for yourself. I’m planning on it. []
  7. Or a pizza, or a toy, or a whatever []
  8. Big suppositions, but I’m thinking out loud here. And about to ask you to help me think out loud better. []
Share

The Podcast: Pre-Baby Brain Dump

Today’s podcast, recorded on my drive in to Longmont this morning, is a quick brain dump of several of the things that I’m thinking about as I head into new baby time.  Mostly for me, this was an attempt to capture some ideas before they slipped away as well as to offer the change for you, dear readers and listeners, to set me straight.  As always, appreciate your time.

Direct Link to Audio

Share

I Am Not a Gadget (But I do like poetry)

Jaron Lanier, in his new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, writes:

Every save-the-world cause has a list of suggestions for “what each of us can do”: bike to work, recycle, and so on.

I can propose such a list related to the problems I’m talking about:

  • Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
  • If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
  • Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
  • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
  • Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
  • If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

These are some of the things you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others. (p 49-50 of the B&N eReader edition.)

I’m thinking that Lanier, so far, is overselling his case that we are, in fact, becoming locked-in to a particular way of thinking, being and doing because of the technologies that are shaping our world today. Yes, I think such lock-in can occur – but only when we don’t pay attention to it.  Television and movies provide similar opportunities to fiddle with reality.  And have for some time.

But I think his calls to action are dead on.  And not so terribly new.  We’ve been creating culture through media for a very long time.  I wonder who has written similar calls to action against becoming so swept up by professionalism or industrialism or society’s particular rules of okayedness that folks forget to feel. (Yes.  That last sentence was sarcasm – much of the literature that I find fascinating is a reaction in some way to whatever the writer finds to be an artificial limit placed on humanness.  I’m thinking this book fits in the “literature” category more than the “nonfiction” shelf.  But it’s early yet.  I’m only a couple of chapters in.)

I wonder who will write about that next.

This book is, so far as I’ve gotten, as much poem as argument.  He writes in the preface that “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”  He’s right.

How are you supporting your somebody before you’re racing to share?

Share

What’s “Print?”

I’ve assigned many research projects in my time as a teacher. Perhaps you have, too. Research, the process of looking and re-looking at the way an issue or idea has been explored, is a vital part of learning.

Perhaps you, like me, have assigned research projects that required that students cite their sources, and perhaps you, like me, wanted to make sure your students went deeper than a quick Google search and the top five hits for whatever search term or terms they happened to type in the first time they went looking.

So maybe you, like me, made a requirement of the project that students had to include one or more “print sources,” materials that couldn’t be downloaded from the Web.

If so, maybe you have this question, too:

What does “print resource” mean anymore? Has it become a meaningless term?

Let’s consider for a moment what used to count. An article from a newspaper was, in my classroom, considered a print resource. How about now? I’m more likely to read my local paper online than I am to read the print edition. Is an article from the newspaper still a print resource?

How about a magazine article? When I was in middle and high school, one of the great resources at the local library was a collection of magazine articles on CD-ROM databases. Even then, a magazine article wasn’t a print source, but it counted as one. Maybe because I was required to turn in a printout of the article with the final draft of my papers.

Encyclopedias? By high school, encyclopedias shouldn’t be cited by anyone, much less count as sources. But they did, and often do.

So might I humbly suggest a small change to any assignment that requires students to provide a “print” resource?  Ask them for a primary source instead.

The print/electronic binary is over.  Dead.  (And I do so dislike saying that something’s “dead.” But the difference between print and electronic is a meaningless difference, at least when we’re talking research. ) The transmission medium that delivered the message might not be the most important consideration in student research.  And print stuff still matters – but not if it’s included solely because it’s on a piece of paper.

Ask students to think, instead, about primary and secondary sources.   And later, after you’ve mastered that, ask them to think about the difference between citationality and attribution, and why that might matter in their research.  And yours.

Share

20,000 Volumes. 18 e-Readers. (Only 18?)

The Boston Globe reports that Cushing Academy will be eliminating their library and replacing their 20,000 physical volumes with 18 e-readers. And a cappucino machine.

The article goes on quote various experts lamenting or praising the decision.  My only question is this: How bad was circulation in their library when the assumption is that 18 e-readers will be enough to meet reader demand for books to take home?

I continue to worry about the rush to replace paper books with electronic ones.  Seems like we’re in the early days of digital rights management with electronic texts, and Kindles are sexy, but not practical for sharing books with others.

Share

Klentschy & Thompson – Scaffolding Science Inquiry

I’m sitting in today on a session at one of our elementary schools where the group of teachers is looking deeply at inquiry and how it works at school.  We’ve just been given a copy of Michael Klentschy and Laurie Thompson’s book, Scaffolding Science Inquiry Through Lesson Design and have been asked to take a look at Chapter One and write about our reading.

I have long been interested in Klentschy and others’ work with science notebooks, tools for thinking, questioning, gathering data and making meaning from the data gathered.  I think my blog serves a bit like my science notebook, and I think that blogs could be fine science notebooks for students and teachers to think, question, record observations and use to make meaning from those things, too.  But the first chapter of their book discusses a three-phase approach to lesson planning that’s not a bad model to keep in mind:

Phase 1 – Intended Curriculum – The big ideas that are expected to be taught. (Perhaps standards, benchmarks, big questions)

Phase 2 – Implemented Curriculum – The plan for getting to those big ideas.  In their model, this begins with a focus question, a question that “leads to construction of knowledge about lesson content goals” (page 4).  PRedictions, data collection and recording in a notebook, and making meaning of that data follow.

Phase 3 – Achieved Curriculum – A measure of whether or not what was intended and implemented actually resulted in student learning of those elements and ideas.  The science notebook, as a place to record most of the thinking and questioning and collection that occurred along the way, becomes a big piece of the assessment – and a place to discover where, if it happened, learning went off track.

I think this is a pretty handy way of thinking about lesson design.  It meshes nicely with what I’m learning about Understanding by Design, as well.  Better than either model, though, is the systematic use of the notebook as a place to record and think and write and learn and share.  That’s how learning happens.  We write.  We ask.  We seek.  We discover.   We revise.  We share.  Repeat.

I carry a notebook and also use this space to do those things.  Any approach to learning that helps students to use actual learning tools for realistic reasons is a good step.  It’s much bigger than science, too.  I’m pleased that this school is seeking to use processes and tools across classrooms to model how learning happens.  I’m also pleased to be in the midst of this conversation occurring as teachers write and share with each other, too. Our students need to see teachers engaged in learning using methods similar to the ones they ask their students to use.

Not a bad way to spend the week before school starts back.

Share

Reading Social Networks

I’m doing some work next month with some folks on social networking, and one of the elements that I’m thinking a great deal about, thanks to a colleague‘s suggestion, is how we can help educators to read social networks as texts.

I have a hunch that one can read a network like one reads any other text.  That said, though, I’m finding that it’s a bit harder to see a network than it is to see a simpler, perhaps more linear text.

Specifically, I’m trying to design an activity that encourages some rhetorical analysis of the networks that educators and others are using to share information.

In layman’s terms, I’m hoping to generate a list of questions that folks can use as they read through networks to help them identify what the networks are communicating, how they’re communicating what they’re communicating, and how those messages are delivered.

I’m wondering what questions you would ask readers/participants to think about or look for as they work their way through a particular network or networks.  What do you think we should be helping our students to think about as they read and create their own networks?  I’d also be curious to hear your response to this general idea.  I’m discovering that as I try to draft questions, I find myself using language about networks that I think is better used to describe group or community characteristics.  Worth doing?

Here are a couple of questions that I think are pretty important – I’d be really curious to hear yours in the comments:

1.  Who are the nodes in the network that you are reading/analyzing?  Where do you see boundaries of membership in this network?  How do you know they exist? (Self-identified or apparent to readers?)

2. How are they connected?  From what perspective are you reading the network – how are you seeing the connections? How might another reader see those connections?  The same?  Differently?  How do you know?

3.  What practices or beliefs are communicated through the network?   Are these explicit?  Implicit?  What methods of communication are privileged in the network? Under or unvalued?  How do you know?

Share

Quotes from Patri

At the recommendation of Gary Stager and Chris Lehmann, one of my summer reads is A Schoolmaster of the Great City by Angelo Patri.  Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. The book was written by Patri in 1917. It rings true, though, with much of what I worry about in our schools today. Patri faced the same problems and shares many of my passions. That’s both troublesome and reassuring.  I’ll be seeking out more of his work.  In the meantime, here are some of the lines that jumped out at me as I read today:

  • The antagonism between the children and teachers was far stronger than I had ever seen it before. The antagonism between the school and the neighborhood was intense. Both came from mutual distrust founded on mutual misunderstanding. The children were afraid of the teachers, and the teachers feared the children. (p. 14)
  • As each day went by, cautiously I put the problem of school discipline before them and they responded by taking over much of the responsibility for it themselves. (p. 15)
  • In this restless, uncertain sea of motion, noise, color and goings; of constant goings upstairs and downstairs, one learned to ‘go slow’ and watch and wait for his opportunity. (p. 19)
  • The rod idea was at work. Books, benches, crowded rooms, sitting still, listening; talking only when called upon to recite, teaching where the teachers did the thinking; these conditions have meant and always will mean an imposed discipline, an imposed routine, whereas real discipline is a personal thing, a part of the understanding soul. To replace discipline of teacher-responsibility by the discipline of child-responsibility is a long, slow process. (p. 27)
  • It was difficult to get teachers away from subject matter, from machinery, and toward children. How could it be otherwise? (p.30)
  • I wanted ideas  expressed in color, movement, fun and not lines, ideas and not perfect papers, every one alike . .  .  . I wanted nature that would make the child’s heart warm with sympathy .  .  .that would make him laugh to feel the snow and the rain and the wind beating on his face. (p. 30)
  • The feeling for the things that I wanted was rather more definite than the knowledge of how to attain the desired results. (p. 30)(Karl – that quote was just for you.  We all get stuck.)
  • (On teaching robins) ‘Suppose you meet the class under the big oak tree in the morning and look for robins. Watch them until you and the children know as much about them as one can learn by looking  .  .  .  . Then talk over what you’ve seen and learned. Let everybody say his say sometime or other.  .  .  . Then when you have all the facts about him select those that are most worthwhile, and present them as the robin story.  You’ll find you’ll need very little drill.’ (p. 32)
  • I felt that we had to win the parents as well as the taechers if the changes we were making, our emphasis on the ‘fads and frills’ of education, were to be accepted in the homes. (p. 33)
  • Many parents believe that this is education. .  .  . They fear freedom, they fear to let the child grow by himself. (p. 37)
  • I wanted opportunity for the masses, the best schools for the crowds, the best teachers for the heaviest load.  I thought in terms of service, they in terms of tradition. (p. 41)

Plenty more good stuff within.  I’d encourage you to read the book.

Share

Might Want to Listen

Tomorrow night, the folks at Teacher Teaching Teachers will be having a conversation with the authors or the book I mentioned in my last podcast.  How timely.  Here’s the info:

Many of us are planning to use Reinventing Project-Based Learning in our Writing Project Summer Institutes and elsewhere in our work with teachers.  The researchers, teachers, and authors, Susie Boss and Jane Krauss will be joining us on Teachers Teaching Teachers tomorrow.

Join us at http://EdTechTalk.com/live at 9:00pm Eastern / 6:00pm Pacific USA Wednesdays / 01:00 UTC Thursdays World Times

Suzie Boss
Suzie is a veteran journalist who writes about teaching and learning in the 21st century. She and Jane have authored a book on using technology to empower teaching and learning called Reinventing Project-Based Learning. From interviewing and observing hundreds of teachers in both formal and informal contexts, she has seen how innovative approaches to education can engage learners and transform communities. The book is a unique educational resource that integrates interviews with leading experts, storytelling, and suggestions for putting research into practice. She has been an editor for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a freelance writer contributing to wide range of publications, and a community college instructor.

Jane Krauss
Jane is a long-time educator, curriculum writer, and expert in professional development. An innovative teacher and early adopter of instructional technologies, Jane and her elementary classroom were showcased in a video case study that thousands of teachers have used to learn about authentic, project-based learning. As former director of professional development for the International Society for Technology in Education and a consultant for Intel’s education initiative, she has helped educators around the world improve their practice. She recently co-authored a book with Suzie Boss on the effective use of technology in education, entitled Reinventing Project-Based Learning.

I suspect it’ll be a good conversation.  You might want to join in live.

Share

Reading Balance

Clay Burell’s challenged me (or tagged me, or whatever) to engage a meme that he’s passing along.  I might.  I’m bad about memes.  I don’t mean to be.  (And I am thinking about a good passion quilt image and will post one.  Eventually.  Thanks to all who tagged me.) But I did want to encourage you to read his post.  Mostly because of this idea about teaching Lolita:

I think I can say they all love it. I also think I can say they can handle it – and if they can’t, they should learn to, now more than ever.

As a high school language arts teacher, I encouraged my students to pick many of their own books in consultation with me and other trusted adults.  I would encourage you to do the same.  But that’s another post.

But when you do decide to read a book together, I’d ask that you never insult the intelligence of your students, emotionally or intellectually, by hiding the world from them through picking “safe” books.  Safe choices are pretty much always about you (or your administrator, or your school board) and not about your students.  They live in the worlds being represented in literature.  Many educators live in these worlds, too.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.  Instead, let’s challenge students to engage ideas and concepts that are weighty, essential and enthralling.

Let’s ask them to dream and to dare and to risk by talking about difficult ideas in safe places.  Let’s ask them not to agree with the stance of a particular author or book or teacher or administrator or board policy, but instead to struggle through finding their own way.  With help, of course.

Most good teaching is all about finding balance.  Safe and scary.  Old and new.  Today and tomorrow.  Child and adult.  Easy and hard.  Choice and “have to.” Too often in schools, we lean way hard on one side of the teeter totter and completely avoid the other side.

What fun is that?  And what good is it for anyone?

Share