Education is a process not a product

Many economists these days know what drives people to actually do things better than our policy makers: incentives.

The newer field of behavioral economics has found through countless studies and experiments that people are more likely to do what you want them to do if they are given some positive incentive to do it. The whole idea of you don’t get something for nothing.

We see this everyday with coupons offering a deal if you shop at a particular store or spend a certain amount of money at that store. Or two different prices for gas, cash and credit, to get you to pay cash so the station doesn’t have to pay credit card fees. But where we don’t see incentives is where they are asked for the most: school.

I can’t count the number of times I have been asked, “Why do we need to know this?” or “How is reading Dickens going to help me do better in business?” Basically, the students are looking for incentives to study, to do the work in school, but we don’t give them to them. We create punishments instead called tests. Honestly, when has anyone ever said, “Yay, we have a test today!” NO ONE. Doing well on a test is a useless incentive because tests are seen as drudgery to begin with, practically a punishment. Here you did all this work, now spend a class period stressing out and suffering through a series of questions without any reference material as a reward?

Oh, but if they do well on the tests, then they will get good grades in the class and if they get good grades over all, the students will get into good colleges and if they get into good colleges they will get good jobs, right? Who cares? Those kinds of rewards are long-term at best and purely hypothetical. They are likely, sure, but teenagers want immediate reward, and we don’t see knowledge as a reward. We don’t value it at all anymore. We value results, products, a.k.a. test scores. So, students learn from a very early age to work toward a product: good scores and grades. They don’t work toward the process of non-stop learning, which means they don’t actually acquire that much knowledge beyond test-taking skills.

Don’t get me wrong, I know I am generalizing here and that some students do crave knowledge and seek to better themselves through education. They don’t value the dollar over smarts, but they are an elite group of students that is far too small considering the over-riding culture of “just-get-through-high-school-so-you-can-go-to-college” attitude. I have even personally heard parents tell their children that a research paper is “just something you have to go through to graduate from high school.”

As long as our public schools, as dictated by politicians, value products — test scores and grades — over processes — learning — this will not change at all and the education level of our students will actually decline over time. I was just talking to a colleague today about all the products we as teachers have to produce that show nothing but data points by which we are analyzed and she pointed out that she looked at her history lesson notes from six years ago and students were much further along chronologically back then than they are now, which means rushing through the past fifty years or so of history in about a week toward the end of the year. Where’s the learning there? But as long as the students do well on the PARCC exams, get good grades, move up through the grades, and graduate, we don’t care what actually sticks in their heads.

That’s just sad. There is so much out there to learn and understand, but we push kids to value only the end product instead of the process that actually has no end product, learning.


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