Thursday, January 23, 2014

getting kids to like school

There are a couple of self-reinforcing cycles that people tend to underestimate:
  1. You like what you're good at, and you're good at what you like. The first causal relationship is well-understood: of course people like to feel good about themselves, and likes are arbitrary enough that's it's easy to "decide" to like what you're good at and rationalize those preferences as necessary. The second causal relationship is underestimated: If I like something, I'm likely to spend some time doing it immediately, which means I'm going to get better at it, and have even more reason to like it.
  2. You do what your identity prescribes, and your identity is shaped by what you do. If I think of myself as a morning person, I'm going to remember that when I set my alarm clock, and I'll set it early. If I think of myself as a punctual person, I want to live up to that by being on time. But conversely, if I play with math somewhat as a kid, and notice that other people don't do that as much, then I might define myself (necessarily in contrast to others; no one's self-concept is based on their humanity) as a math geek.
These are powerful cycles to exploit, because positive reinforcement leads to exponential processes: The more you learn today, the more you can learn tomorrow. The more you invest today, the more you'll have available to invest tomorrow. There are two aspects of exploiting them:
  1. Get on the right cycle: Teenagerhood is considered a high risk time of one's life because that's when we define ourselves. And teachers are always trying to convince us that "math is fun!" so we'll take an interest in it and get better at it.*
  2. Get on the cycle early, so exponential growth gets going: There's plenty of effort to get young girls interested in math and science, and virtually nothing to convince them to study math and science when they get to college. It's much more powerful to get to them early on.
So this is a very long roundabout way of getting to my true point: using financial incentives on kids to get them to do better in school is usually met with extreme skepticism, because extrinsic motivation might crowd out intrinsic motivation, and/or the money sends the signal that doing well in school is something so unpleasant that they have to be paid to do it. But what about when you're dealing with young disadvantaged inner city kids who already believe they can't be good in school, a belief which is reinforced by teachers and parents who by high school will tell them to stop wasting time and get a job? I believe that a well-crafted** financial incentive could be just the thing to trigger young kids into liking the right things and choosing the right identity. If a kid decides to go after a monetary prize for doing something academic, he just might find that he's better at it than he expected, or likes it more than he expected, and voila, either way he's on a virtuous cycle starting from a young age.

As an economist I would put this as: the "model"*** above predicts a positive correlation between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, unlike other models that predict a crowding out effect.

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*Hint: gradeschool math is not math. Calculation is tedious and boring, no matter how relevant/relatable you make it. Math is fun, so teach it! Kids don't care whether things are useful, they care whether they're fun. They just say "who cares?" when they're trying to justify their disinterest.

**I have more to say about how to craft them well, but later. Actually it was a conversation with a development/education economist, Francisco Gallego, about what my job market paper has to say about designing education programs in these scenarios that got me thinking about the topic in general. The job market is exhausting but the upside is the fresh mental stimulation from meeting all kinds of new smart people.

***Quotation marks are mandatory here. I will never give in to the sociology definition of "model" :)

1 comment:

  1. My kids have a hard time waking up early every morning, but yeah you are right, they are much more excited to get home to their gadgets.

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