SteelyKid’s kindergarten teacher is big on incentives and prizes– there are a number of reward bags that get sent home with kids who excel in some particular area. I’m not entirely sure what’s in these, because SteelyKid hasn’t gotten any yet.
This isn’t because she misbehaves– from all reports, she’s very good– but she’s in a class with 21 other kids, and they’ve only been in school for a couple of weeks. Still, she regards this as a grave injustice, and I occasionally get aggrieved reports about the distribution of reward bags when I pick her up from after-school day care. I try to explain to her that, yes, she may have been perfectly silent during quiet time, but if everybody in the class is perfectly silent and there’s only one Quietest Student reward bag, her teacher just has to pick one of the perfectly silent people to give it to. Sort of like the Nobel Prize, really.
She fails to find this convincing, particularly when the bags are used not just to reward but to encourage. Last night’s grievance was that she had not received the Best Hallway Manners bag, despite being really good in the hallway, while her classmate Redacted got the bag even though he was “talking, and talking, and talking, and that’s not good hallway manners.” This was the biggest injustice of all time.
And while it’s a really hard sell to a five-year-old with a five-year-old’s sense of fairness, I can understand why this might happen. We get almost nightly reports about Redacted misbehaving in one way or another (her teacher very charitably described SteelyKid as a “mother hen,” though “junior busybody” is probably more accurate). So even if Redacted was talking in the hall, that might’ve represented a dramatic improvement over running, yelling, and touching other kids, and thus deserving of reward. The Best Hallway Manners bag went to Redacted not because he was the best by an objective standard, but by a relative standard– he did way better than in the past, and the teacher wants to encourage that.
But again, good luck explaining that to a five-year-old. “Yes, honey, it’s unfair to you, but it’s unfair in a small way in service of a greater good.”
But, of course, the impulse to use rewards as corrective incentives is not restricted to the kindergarten ranks. I’ve had people who teach college students tell me that they won’t use standard grading rubrics for written work because they want to be able to use grades in a relative way. A merely acceptable paper by an outstanding student might get a B+, for example, while the exact same paper handed in by a mediocre student might get an A-. (“Exact same” in a counterfactual sense, mind– if both students hand in the exact same paper for the same assignment, they both get F’s…) Because the good student could do better, while the weaker student should be rewarded for a better-than-expected effort.
Personally, I find that kind of boggling, but that’s probably mostly because I’m a scientist married to a lawyer. I’m all about objective standards and bright-line rules.
And it’s not like being old enough to understand the greater good behind the “unfair” distribution of incentives does any good, as Timothy Burke describes in the context of campus parking:
In general, despite the seeming impact of policies like congestion pricing in London, life does not really work out as it does in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Because even in general, most people know what the incentive is trying to get them to do, and they even know that the whole apparatus is like one of the humane chutes that Temple Grandin designed for cattle butcheries. Unlike cattle, they’re not soothed by technocratic chutes: they get more and more agitated as the kill floor approaches, particularly when they get a glimpse of someone in a white coat with a checklist observing the incentive machine in action. People have more agency than cows, and if there’s anything that mobilizes them to perverse or unpredictable ends, it’s the sense that they’re being made to do something by someone who thinks that people are too stupid to even notice they’re being made to do something.
(That’s maybe a tiny bit hyperbolic, but in an enjoyable way. Which is why I link to him all the time– there are weeks when I think I should just replace this blog with a plain HTML page directing everyone to Easily Distracted and Dot Physics.)
Of course, there’s a long way between the Best Hallway Manners bag and campus parking incentives. We’ll do the best we can to inculcate a sense of the greater good in SteelyKid, and an understanding that sometimes things that aren’t “fair” to her personally are, in fact, in the service of justice at a higher sort of level.
But man, that’s a hard sell right now.