Posts tagged ‘libertarian paternalism’

Using Incentives to Improve Education: TIME is paying kids to do better in school

I found this article in TIME fascinating.  I’m surprised that they didn’t have the Nudge or Freakonomics authors comment on the story — it’s directly libertarian paternalism.

If you haven’t read it, it’s a randomized clinical study of paying kids to do better in school, across four different settings with different criteria for pay-outs.  The results (so-far — the study is on-going to get data on long-term effects and drop-out rates) are pretty much what the libertarian paternalists would predict.  Paying kids for higher grades or better test scores doesn’t work.  Kids don’t necessarily know how to achieve those goals, and the feedback may arrive too late to influence performance (e.g., test scores that arrive in the summer).  But paying kids to attend class, to read more books, to avoid fights, to not get pregnant — these things result in measurable benefits.  Kids know how to do these things, and the feedback arrives quickly. It works most of the time.  The results are still complicated, and there are additional variables that influence the results. Key is that it’s really important work to do, and someone is doing it.

But should students work for intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivations?  As the study’s author says: If it doesn’t work for adults, why should it work for kids?

In principle, Fryer agrees. “Kids should learn for the love of learning,” he says. “But they’re not. So what shall we do?” Most teenagers do not look at their math homework the way toddlers look at a blank piece of paper. It would be wonderful if they did. Maybe one day we will all approach our jobs that way. But until then, most adults work primarily for money, and in a curious way, we seem to be holding kids to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

via Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School? — Printout — TIME.

Jan Cuny has talked about trying something similar for AP CS.  Turns out that paying AP teachers $50 for each student score of 5, and $25 to each student who gets a 3 or better, works for driving up students taking AP exams and for raising scores.  Why not try it for AP CS, too?

April 12, 2010 at 9:06 pm 7 comments

Nudging Computing Education

I’m spending Father’s Day reading. Just finished Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites (the first appearance of Granny Weatherwax, which I had never read before), and have now just started Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein.  I’d heard of behavioral economics before, especially in the context of how these ideas are influencing the Obama administration.  I’m recognizing implications for computing education as well.

The basic premise of behavioral economics is that people are bad decision makers, and those decisions are easily biased by factors like the ordering of choices.  Consider the choice between a cupcake and a piece of fruit.  The worse choice there only has consequences much later and the direct feedback (“You gained weight because you chose the cupcake!”) is weak.  Thaler and Sunstein promote libertarian paternalism.  The idea is that we want to offer choices to people, but most people will make bad choices.  Libertarian paternalism suggests that we make the default or easiest choice the one which we (paternalistically) define as the best one — that’s a nudge.  It’s not always easy to decide which is the best choice, and we want to emphasize making choices that people would make for themselves (as best as we can) if they had more time and information.

An obvious implication for computing education is our choice of first programming language.  Alan Kay has pointed out many times that people are sometimes like Lorenz’s ducks, who were convinced that the Lorenz was their parent: people “imprint” on the first choice they see.  Thaler and Sunstein would probably agree that the first language someone learns will be their default choice when facing a new problem. We want to make sure that that’s a good default choice.

How do we choose the first, “best choice” language?  If our students are going to become software engineers, then choosing a language which is the default (most common, most popular) in software engineering would make sense: C++ or Java.  But what if our students are not going to become software engineers?  Then we’ve made their first language harder to learn (because it’s always harder as a novice to learn the tool used by experts), and the students don’t have the vocational aspirations to make the extra effort worthwhile.  That choice might then lead to higher failure/withdrawal rates and students regretting trying computer science.  Hmm, that seems familiar…

Another choice might be to show students a language in which the best thinking about computer science is easiest.  For example, Scheme is a great language for pointing out powerful ideas in computer science.  I believe that Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programming by Abelson and Sussman is the best computer science textbook ever written.  It’s power stems, in part, from its use of Scheme for exemplifying its ideas.

The challenge of using Scheme is that it is not naturally the language of choice for whatever problem comes the student’s way.  Sure, you can write anything in Scheme, but few people do, even people who know Scheme.  Libraries of reusable tools that make it easy to solve common problems tend to appear in the languages that more people are using. If students were well-informed (or are/become informed), would they choose Scheme? If the answer to that question is “No,” the teacher appears coercive and constraining, and the course is perceived as being irrelevant. That’s another familiar story.

The ideas of Nudge have implications for teachers, too. I am on the Commission to design the new Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exam in “Computer Science: Principles.”  (This exam is in contrast to the existing Level A CS AP exam in computer science programming in Java.) We just met for the first time this last week.  There will be programming in the new APCS exam, and there’s interest in providing teachers with choices of what language they teach.  Providing infinite choice makes it really hard to write a standardized, national exam.  Teachers will likely be offered a menu of choices.  How will those choices be ordered?  How will teachers make these choices?  While there are some wonderful high school teachers, there are too few high school CS teachers.  The new APCS exam will only be successful if most of the teachers offering it are brand new to computer science.  These teachers need help in making these choices, with reasonable default values, because they simply won’t have the experience yet to make well-informed choices.

June 21, 2009 at 8:41 pm 5 comments

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