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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 12/10/2009 | 3 Comments

Anyone who was at the event with Barry Schwartz in June will tell you how strong he was on how financial incentives don’t work. He recounted the following, very memorable example. An Israeli nursery were irked by the fact that parents weren’t turning up in time to pick up their children. The staff couldn’t exactly put them on the door step and go home and it meant that they often had to work late. They decided that to stop late coming that they would fine parents if they didn’t turn up at the allotted time. Within a few weeks the problem had got much worse, not better. Many calculated that it was worth being fined and paying the money rather than having to turn up on time. After a short while the nursery disbanded the fine system but parents still  were turning up late in numbers much higher than the original problem. Barry’s explanation was that the introduction of fines disconnected the idea of late coming from morality and responsibility. It became a financial transaction. Even when the financial penalty was removed it was difficult to get parents to get back to the idea that they should do the right thing by turning up on time. Barry quoted other examples where being paid to do something which you would have done voluntarily weakens commitment. As Barry explained – nothing is as strong an incentive as wanting to do the right thing. Copious research shows that human beings are essentially moral animals.

So bearing this in mind you can see how despondent I was when I attended a family SEAL workshop at an event in England recently. This was a workshop about using SEAL ideas with parents. The women who ran it were good presenters and ran a stimulating session. Much of what they seemed to be saying was sensible and their materials very attractive. However, in one booklet they are using called ‘how to help children be good’ it suggests for older children that you pay them for positive behaviour and gave the following examples:

Be kind to your  brother   3p
Flushing toilet after use   2p

Is this how materialistic our society has become when sensible folk start to think it reasonable to pay children to do things which previous generations would have rightly expected children to do as members of a considerate, civilised society?  Aren’t they simply teaching children that we only do things if we get paid for them? If so, what kind of message is that?


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john daly
Joined: 23/10/2009

Comment Posted: 23/10/2009 12:42
I do agree that the ideas in the SEAL pamphlet along with the attempt to impose affordable fines for late coming parents are sad and ridiculous.

Im really sorry I had to miss Barry Schwartzs talk. With great interest I had read some of his arguments in a newspaper article where he was critical of the idea that money is a good motivator for children. I strongly agree with most of what he says. Clearly, there are many higher values to work for and be motivated by than making money, at least for us non-bankers. He cites some studies of some peoples behaviour to show that giving rewards as incentives are far less powerful than intrinsic incentives, such as wanting to do the right thing. Looking at the world about us, its also clear that money is a motivator and in lots of contexts a very very powerful one, especially for bankers.

Some schools in England are now experimenting with the idea of paying school kids to learn. Its an idea that lots of people instinctively abhor. Almost every time Ive heard it discussed the initial reaction is that its simply wrong. Children should learn for the intrinsic value of it, not an extrinsic one as crass as money. When probed though, most people reveal that they were rewarded for good grades or that theyre rewarding their children with presents, cash or treats when they do well. Barry Schwartz in the New York Times argued that paying children to learn might do them more harm in the long term. They might expect money for everything they do. The whole thing will fail anyway, he argues, because experiments with kids have shown, that rewarding them for activities such as picture painting demotivates them further down the line and puts them off the activity.

Its probably true that in private schools or with middle class children in state schools cash rewards wouldnt mean anything. Why worry about learning to earn when you get a healthy allowance or already have the latest trainers, ipod, etc.? Besides which, there are plenty of role models around for those kids to show that sticking in at school and going to University is a good idea. Their neighbours, the aunt and uncle who are doctors, lawyers or even - dare I say, bankers - and display all the trappings of success, nice cars, house, holidays. These positive examples found in a middle class context re-enforce the idea that its good to study and succeed academically. But what about the housing scheme context? What about the schools in some poorer areas were pupils disengagement and lack of motivation is a huge problem for teachers? Its like herding cats.

Economist and Chief Equality Officer for New Yorks Education Dept. Roland G. Fryer (as a teenager he was a crack dealer from the projects) argues that its no use saying to these children that in 10 to 15 years time, if you work hard at school you could have all the benefits enjoyed by the professional classes. They dont see the same aunts and uncles so they cant imagine what its like to benefit from a good education. 10 or 15 years is a very long time for a child to wait. Paying them at the end of the week or month is a tangible achievement they can easily grasp. Even Barry Schwartz agrees that perhaps its worth trying since a lot of children are disengaged and nothing else is working with them, though he goes on to say in the article that R. G. Fryer, as an economist, has based his ideas on false assumptions about human nature.

Whatever theory of human nature Roland G Fryer believes in, his work at Harvard Unversitys edlabs (have a look at their website, http://www.edlabs.harvard.edu/), is having some success with their innovative solutions to modern education problems. In three American cities projects have been designed which involve pupils getting paid as much as $2000 a year for performance at school.

In his New York Times article, published in 2007 when the paying kids to learn project was first set up, Barry Schwartz wrote:

Unfortunately, these assumptions that economists make about human motivation, though intuitive and straightforward, are false. In particular, the idea that adding motives always helps is false. There are circumstances in which adding an incentive competes with other motives and diminishes their impact. Psychologists have known this for more than 30 years.

The thing about human nature is that it keeps changing. Maybe in this context i.e. poor schools in poor areas, money could be an incentive. The one test of any good theory is, does it work? Theres not much data available yet about how successful Fryers projects are, theyre not yet complete, though, there are plenty of newspaper reports about the dramatic changes taken place for those involved (see edlabs news section). Students talk of the buzz about learning. Everyones talking about learning all the time. The only figures Ive come across so far: one school class has increased its numbers of those meeting the grades from 60 to 84 and another schools grade standards have shot up 40. This, by the way, is in a field where interventions and pilot projects are deemed a success if they improve standards by 1.

It might work in some of our schools too; it might not, but surely worth a try. It may feel like the wrong thing to do, but if it gets otherwise disengaged children into a good habit of learning, what harm can that do? And how much confidence does a school kid get from walking into school on a Monday morning with the latest trainers or ipod theyve just treated themselves to from their earnings?
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john daly
Joined: 23/10/2009

Comment Posted: 23/10/2009 12:53
For some reason the percentage symbol along with single quotation marks have been omitted from my earlier comment which makes the figures I've quoted in the second last paragraph seem quite different. Please read 60 84 and 40 as percentages.
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Joined: 03/11/2009

Comment Posted: 03/11/2009 09:04
To be able to teach the children what is right from wrong and for them to be civilized that should begin by teaching the parents first. The parents are the models of the children. They are the ones that the children look up to as they are growing. So what they see from their parents are the ones that they do also. We cannot teach them if their parents do not teach them beforehand. The parents should realize that even they have cash advance to pay for their children mentors, still it is not enough to teach them how to be civilized if their parents are not civilized also.
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