Grades and motivation
Marti Maguire, staff writer for The News&Observer, shares an interview with a homeschooling mother of two. The interview is a positive portrayal of homeschooling, but one of the questions left me wondering a bit about how much we are conditioned to think in public school terms.
What motivates your children to work without being graded?
Going back to my days as an education major and studying a bit of B.F. Skinner and others key to the behavioral approach, I learned the difference between a primary reinforcer and a secondary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are those things which are inherently rewarding to the organism. Sorry, child. Things like social affirmation, treats, comfort and mental stimulation. A secondary reinforcer is something that the, child...learns to associate with something positive over time.

The classic example of a secondary reinforcer is the bell Pavlov used in his experiments. Ringing a bell will not usually elicit any particular behavior in an animal. However, Pavlov found that if he rang a bell and immediately offered his dog food, over time, the dog began to associate the bell with food. At the ringing of the bell, the dog would salivate, even without any food presented. It had become a secondary reinforcer.

A grade in school is a human equivalent. It is meaningless to a child. Even a first grader (remember, I had a room full of them) has only a limited understanding of exactly what a grade means and isn't particularly motivated by it, yet. For most children, however, certain grades are consistently associated with primary reinforcers the child is willing to work for, such as a smile and compliment from the teacher, a sticker and special privileges at home. Children are thus conditioned to view the grade as a reward as well.

In school, grades are an important tool to communicate a child's achievement to parents and for record keeping. For an older child who has been properly conditioned, they can also serve as a secondary motivation. But in the homeschool? And for a nine and six year old?

One of my more interesting instructors once said that one of the greatest achievements of public education was its ability to take a "child full of wonder, curiosity and questions and turn him completely off of learning within three to five years." One way to do this is through an over-emphasis on secondary reinforcers to control and motivate a student.

Homeschooling families have the delightful advantage of being able to use primary motivators (and, more importantly, intrinsic motivators) to engage our children in learning: our time, our attention, and their own interests. Grades may be important for record keeping, but have you ever thought of them as a motivating factor in your teaching?

It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curious of inquiry. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

---Albert Einstein

For more on motivation, I actually have several posts on the topic:

Motivation, Defined
Extrinsic Motivation, A Myth?
Motivation and Self Government

The following explore the spiritual needs of the child as introduced in the above entry:


Clipart: Pavlov's Dog, Grade

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