kitchen table math, the sequel: Anonymous on competition & "positive compulsions"

Friday, May 29, 2009

Anonymous on competition & "positive compulsions"

Competition used to be a regular part of school: posting the perfect scores on weekly spelling tests, who can get the most math problems done correctly in a given amount of time etc. Then someone decided that was bad, because if there are winners, there are losers. Of course, I'm sure that mainstreaming and heterogeneous grouping were heavily involved in that decision.

BTW, as the parent of several full-time elite athletes, I have observed that when kids get to a certain level they provide their own motivation; the coach's role is to help them increase their fitness, skills and tactics. I have frequently seen this in kids under 12; once instructed by the coach, the kids do significant conditioning and skills work outside of practices. However, athletes are given status and recognition not offered to outstanding students. Unfortunately.

I'm intrigued by this observation.

It relates to something I've been kicking around in my mind: how did I come to be a highly motivated student?

I often wonder whether I would have survived the constructivist schools we have now, and I tend to think the answer is 'no.'

I think the answer is 'no' because a constructivist project-based school wouldn't have given me the steady supply of positive reinforcement my traditional school did. I was a straight-A student & all assignments were what today we called "short timeline." I was positively reinforced so often that studying and all forms of school work became what Eric Hollander calls a "positive compulsion."

more anon

update 3:28 pm
[T]hey don't NECESSARILY have the motivation from the beginning; some do, some don't. If they don't have/acquire it, they don't last long at the elite level. If they don't work on their own, they drop in relation to the kids who do and they get cut from the team. That bothers some people, but not everyone has the same interests. There's a finite amount of time and kids have different priorities. Someone who drops from an elite team to a less-competitive one, so he can spend more time on band/orchestra (or anything else) is making a perfectly rational decision to spend most of his extracurricular time on the activity he likes most. I don't see that as a problem, although some do.

BTW, I have never seen a situation where parents were pushing the kid into a sport he didn't want to do, or to do on at a full-commitment level, that lasted more than short term. You can't make kids get up at 4:00 am two or three days a week for swim practice for very long. Or make a young soccer player work on skills for at least half an hour a day, even if there is practice.

When I taught for Johns Hopkins CTY, we were told that this kind of intrinsic motivation is the hallmark of gifted children. Parents don't force gifted children to practice for hours; the children want to do it.


Allison said...

At CTY were they clear that this intrinsic motivation was directed at SOMETHING? rather than in general?

Children talented at *something* will practice that thing. For a certain set of odd things, especially academic or intellectual ones, we call them "gifted". But that talent and desire to practice is usually narrowed around the activity they like, while the "gifted" tag is an amorphous cloud.

Allison said...

-- I have observed that when kids get to a certain level they provide their own motivation; the coach's role is to help them increase their fitness, skills and tactics.

I still think that our shorthand use of the word "motivation" rather than expressing "motivation to win" or "motivation to throw" or whatever is hampering these discussions.

Professional sports teams still have coaches whose job is to motivate their players toward specific ends. Professional athletes all have very big contracts filled with incentives--measured stats where they are rewarded for performing better against those stats. If all elites were really capable of motivating themselves in this general notion, they wouldn't need such incentives. But that general motivation doesn't translate into the right specifics.

So what exactly what is that they were intrinsically motivated to do, if it wasn't to improve their on-base-percentage, or their number of three point sunk baskets when covered by two guards?

VickyS said...

That all gifted kids are "intrinsically motivated" academically is a dangerous myth that is kept in play by the likes of CTY and the Davidson Institute. For one thing, it provides a justification for schools to direct instructional resources away from gifted kids. For another, it means that kids who aren't self-propelled are not considered in need of advanced instruction even if they are.

What is "intrinsic" motivation anyway? When I was a competitive swimmer, my parents did not push me, but I got up at 5am for years because I wanted to be the best. I consider that extrinsic motivation. In school, I wanted to get A's, I wanted positive feedback. No one pushed me, but I was going after rewards. Still do.

Maybe what we are talking about is "push" vs. "pull."

Still, there is much to be said for "push" especially for younger children. If I hadn't pushed my older son in math early on, he wouldn't be succeeding now. His success is a source of pride for him and has become a motivator--he doesn't need me for that anymore but he sure did in the beginning. If I hadn't pushed my other son to stay in Little League the first couple of years, he would not be enjoying competitive baseball.

What are we really intrinsically motivated to do? Maybe those activities that we pursue in our leisure time--reading, sewing, taking a walk. Things we do strictly for pleasure.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree that a push is most often needed and the feedback of DESERVED reward (grades, praise, athletic stats, starter status etc) to get kids started on the path and keep them there. I'll accept Vicky's distinction. The fact that some kids are inherently more competitive and some are more gifted should NEVER mean that they are denied resources to challenge them further. I absolutely do not accept the argument (I've heard it at PTA meetings) that "gifted kids don't need special services because they'll do well anyway." EVERY child should be challenged appropriately, but it won't happen as long as mainstreaming and heterogeneous grouping rules.

Anonymous said...

What Allison said.

A lot of times gifted kids are motivated by the passion du jour, having little patience for all of those other things they need to learn.

In fact, in the old days the good students tended to be thought of as the gifted ones, while the spacey, disorganized ones in the back would be passed over.

We've probably come a long way since then, but I still see evidence of this kind of prejudice every year with different teachers.


Catherine Johnson said...

At CTY were they clear that this intrinsic motivation was directed at SOMETHING? rather than in general?

I have no idea.

At the time, I didn't know much about kids or any of the issues we talk about here, so I didn't ask.

That said, in fact the program in which I taught, which was a satellite program in Los Angeles, simply took bright kids whose parents wanted to enroll them in a writing class over the summer. These kids weren't driven to write-write-write! Not at all, and they weren't expected to supply such motivation.

I taught the course I'd developed for college freshman, and at the time I thought it worked great.

I would probably still, today, think that it worked great -- except that today I would likely break down the writing assignments into smaller parts.

I would probably have the kids writing paragraphs as opposed to very short papers.

Which reminds me: I need to interview Mary Hake.

Catherine Johnson said...

So what exactly what is that they were intrinsically motivated to do, if it wasn't to improve their on-base-percentageI believe that a great deal of what we're calling motivation in the case of kids motivated to get up at 4 am to attend practice is obsession and/or addiction. (This is, roughly speaking, the subject of the next book I hope to write with Eric Hollander.)

My tennis teacher told me a great story about Billi Jean King. She learned to play tennis hitting balls against the barn wall growing up. Apparently she spent hours at it; then her dad took her to --- LA? Florida? --- and told her he was going to see if he could get a game for her at a local park.

Catherine Johnson said...

That's why I brought up positive reinforcement....after you've been positively reinforced often enough you can develop a "positive addiction" or "positive compulsion."

Piers Steel's work on procrastination was revelatory to me. I think I'm summarizing this correctly: he says that work tasks can be 'secondarily reinforced' (something like that) to the point that people begin to 'want' to do them - or at least to do those tasks without a lot of delay and avoidance.

That explained something I've never understood about Ed and me: I procrastinate more than he does.

I don't think there's a big difference between the two of us in terms of conscientiousness (or obsession!) -- but if he has a bunch of letters of recommendation to write, he'll sit down and write them, whereas when I have a not-fun work task to do I often will not sit down and get it done.

After I real Piers Steel, I realized that Ed experiences FAR more success & positive reinforcement than I do. I basically work alone for hours and weeks and days and months and YEARS -- with a couple of good days interspered, those being: the day the book sells, the day(2) the checks arrive, and the days good reviews and/or spots on the bestseller list occur (should such occur).

Those are all great things, but if you're talking about a schedule of positive reinforcement, it's a lousy, stinking schedule. The result is that my work is driven more by positive reinforcement (deadline is past! editor is mad! coauthor is mad! husband is mad! etc.) than positive.

In behaviorist terms, the reason Ed sits down and writes a letter of recommendation without a whole lot of ado is that he's constantly succeeding & getting positives in his daily work life.

Speaking of positive versus negative reinforcement, that's another item on the to-do list: I've located one article on positive reinforcement I want to read...