ABCs to ATMs - The Case for Paying Students to Learn

Chapter 2: A Brief History of Education and Incentives

Historical Methods of Motivating Students

For as long as formal education has existed, so too have methods for motivating students. In ancient civilizations like Greece and China, the motivation was primarily intrinsic, driven by a cultural emphasis on the virtues of wisdom and intellectualism. Fast-forward to the more recent past, and we find the Industrial Revolution-era classrooms, where the stick—sometimes literally—was as commonly used as the carrot. Fear of punishment, social stigma, and the promise of future employment were the primary motivators.

In the early 20th century, the focus shifted to more extrinsic motivations, such as grades and academic recognition. Educational psychologists like Edward Thorndike began to apply scientific principles to education, leading to the first rudimentary standardized tests and grading systems. These extrinsic motivators evolved over time to include honor rolls, scholarships, and other merit-based incentives.

The Evolution of Grading, Standardized Tests, and Other Conventional Incentives

The 20th century saw the proliferation of standardized testing, beginning with the Army Alpha and Beta tests in World War I, which were designed to assess large numbers of recruits. This concept was later applied to education, culminating in tests like the SAT in the U.S., GCSEs in the U.K., and similar examinations worldwide. Despite their initial intent to create a level playing field, these tests have often been criticized for perpetuating inequality, as they tend to favor students from more privileged backgrounds who can afford extensive test preparation.

Grading systems, too, have evolved but remain a subject of debate. While they initially served as a straightforward method for evaluation, grades have increasingly come under scrutiny for promoting a fixed mindset, where students see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, rather than something they can develop through effort and persistence.

Progress and Leaps in Educational Incentives

Despite these shortcomings, there have been instances where changes in educational approaches led to significant progress:

  1. Desegregation: The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was a turning point that had implications beyond just racial equality. It changed the dynamics in classrooms and contributed to the broader civil rights movement, creating an environment where, theoretically, every child had an equal shot at quality education.
  2. Computers and Technology: The integration of computers into classrooms in the late 20th century opened up new avenues for interactive learning. Software like educational games and computer-based assessments offered a different kind of engagement that could be both entertaining and educational.

  3. Online Schools and MOOCs: The 21st century saw the rise of online education platforms, which have democratized access to high-quality instruction. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from platforms like Coursera and edX allow anyone, anywhere, to learn almost anything, often for free or at a low cost.
  4. Project-Based and Mastery Learning: Innovative schools like the Khan Lab School and the Montessori system have shifted focus from grades to mastery, showing promising results in student engagement and understanding.

Where We Stand Now

While these advancements have made significant contributions to educational progress, they have not fundamentally resolved the issue of student motivation. Whether it’s the debate over the efficacy of standardized tests or the limitations of grading systems, we find that traditional methods of motivation—both intrinsic and extrinsic—are not universally effective. As we forge ahead into an increasingly complex future, it’s clear that we need a new paradigm, one that captures the best elements of these historical methods while addressing their shortcomings.

The proposal to financially incentivize learning, as elaborated in this book, seeks to be that paradigm shift. It aims to build on the progress made over decades and centuries, integrating the lessons learned into a cohesive, effective model for the future.

Education does more than preparation for a job; it is the job.

Ron McDaniel

Founder, Outstanda

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