As I commented in the last post, I’m suspicious of theories of social action that require either complete selfishness or complete selflessness as their explanatory motor. Yochlai Benkler agrees in his talk at The Edge on “The End of Universal Rationality” (thanks to John McCreery for this reference). He doesn’t talk about teaching, but what he does say about motivation and cooperation hits some key points for different approaches to teaching.
Benkler draws an interesting contrast between what he calls the dominant American economic and management theory of the last 40 years, based on a self-interest model of motivation, and newer research that shows a more cooperative model to be more effective. He characterizes American businesses (GM, for example), as “monitoring and controlling” hierarchical systems based on the premise that people will work hardest to seek maximum return if you get the incentives just right, and shirk whenever they can get away with it. As he points out, this results in ponderous management systems where every worker and manager must be closely motivated, actions must be minutely specified and monitored — all the way up to CEOs, who are also presumed to be prone to shirking if not goosed with the right incentives.
Benkler says if you set up the social situation that way, people will indeed behave that way. But then all the pressure is on getting the incentives exactly right, and the game for workers is to see how much reward they can get for the least work and involvement (free-riding). As you know, Bob, one unintended consequence of this theory was that executive compensation was vastly multiplied by all sorts of short-term incentives tied to corporate performance that only motivated executives to cut corners, take quick fixes, and shirk all the more to stimulate another cycle of reward. Does this sound like any classrooms we know yet? Just substitute grade inflation for ballooning executive compensation and go from there.
In some sense the smart students are the ones who decide it’s a hamster wheel and step off. But fortunately, what management researchers have found is that setting up the social situation differently produces different behavior.
In all of these disciplines, the last 20 years and particularly the’ 90s onward, have seen emerging studies, some models, some experiments, some observational field studies, that are showing, A) that people systematically do not behave according to the traditions of selfish rationality under controlled conditions; B) that when you set up systems with different assumptions, you get different behavior, and you get actually better results. There is a beautiful study, for example, from two or three years ago about knowledge workers….
They… built a model and they built observational studies. What happens to knowledge-sharing within teams if on the one hand, you create explicit incentives, monitor the incentives, you share more, you get more; on the other hand, you build much more team spirit and you make it the thing that’s the right thing to do as a member of this team and create much more social relations within the team. What they found was … setting up a social dynamic that’s a team dynamic, and what’s understood to be the right thing to do achieves much greater internal knowledge flows than setting up an effort to create incentives. So you have very real implications.
OK. In order to get better knowledge flows, which I think is a pretty good description of teaching and learning, what I have to do is set up a social dynamic with team spirit and a performance ethic. Students need “a sense of self image and a sense of ‘I’m okay’ relative to the world…” that fits and feeds from the class’ task and process. Individual incentives and top-down monitoring are counterproductive. Well, that sounds a little tricky but a lot more rewarding than chasing the students around like naughty children, giving out candy every time they wipe their own noses.