Posted by: crudbasher | March 22, 2012

The Best Way To Learn: Carrot Or Stick?

Seth Godin recently released an Education Manifesto called Stop Stealing Dreams. You can get it for free here.

When I read it I came across this really interesting passage. I’ll include it in it’s entirety.

11. To efficiently run a school, amplify fear (and destroy

School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.
And the flip side of this fear and conformity must be that passion will be destroyed.
There’s no room for someone who wants to go faster, or someone who wants to do something else, or someone who cares about a particular issue. Move on. Write it in your notes; there will be a test later. A multiple-choice test.
Do we need more fear?
Less passion?

(cc) Yvonee Thompson

That got me thinking. Actually that would elicit a response from anyone involved with education. Is he wrong? Are classrooms run like that? Speaking as a teacher I believe that students learn better when they are passionate about the material. Also speaking as a teacher passion is hard to instill in students who don’t have it. It’s easier to to use fear to get them to learn the minimums.

When I think back on my own days in public schooling the emotion I remember the most is fear. Oh sure there were things I liked to do. I was in the school band and was pretty good at it so I enjoyed that. In fact, my electives were usually the classes I liked the most. The ones I hated and feared were the core classes we were forced to be in.

I think that students in public education move between three different emotions.

  1. Fear – As Seth Godin points out, the school is on a tight schedule. There isn’t time for deviations from the standards. There are all sorts of consequences for non performance. Do you notice that there are way more punishments in school than incentives?
  2. Boredom – Kids learn the game quickly. If you can do the minimums the system will leave you alone. There really isn’t any reason to do more if you aren’t interested in the topic so that leaves boredom for many students.
  3. Passion – If can learn a topic you actually have a interest in, learning can be a joyous thing. Still, this is a very rare emotion in school because there are very few topics offered that are off the core curriculum load. Music is one of them. Of course, when budgets get tight these classes are the first ones cut.

There are a few things about learning that we know to be true. If you are passionate about a subject, you don’t need an incentive to learn about it. You certainly don’t need dire consequences held over you!

Here is a list of 129 Robotics competitions around the world. I have always found these to be fascinating. The students involved are all volunteers and they aren’t doing it for a grade (mostly). They do it because they get to actually build something. They are learning but it doesn’t feel like it because they are passionate about the projects! Can we learn from this example?

It’s hard to know exactly how people will learn in the future but I have been compiling a list of characteristics. It’s like not being able to see a person directly but being able to see their shadow. You can gradually find out things about them. I have done this a few times before so it’s time to update the list with my new thinking. I’ve added two more!

Characteristics of the next way to learn

  1. At the beginning of instruction, the focus of study will not be known; indeed it will be different for each student and change over time.
  2. Learning starts from a very young age. Once the learning starts, it will never end; it will be life long.
  3. Advancement will be based on competency not age.
  4. A student will take a variable amount of time to learn each competency.
  5. Most of this process will be automated and will adapt to the student. Humans will be directly involved only when necessary.
  6. Topics of study will be largely driven by the student and their passions. (Carrot based, not stick)

I welcome any comments or additions to the list!


  1. Do you see “public” education as one driven completely by the individual? Who decides when you have acquired enough skill or knowledge to “pass” each grade ? or to graduate highschool? will this apply to post-secondary students?
    I have a student that is enthralled with google sketchup, he is building pretty cool stuff in my math class… but I can’t get him passionate about other topics…I’m thinking on one hand I need to gather evidence from each strand about all expectations but that would mean I squash his passion, that doesn’t seem fair in the world of individualized education…can I really let him explore and master just one topic ??

  2. Hi Mrs. Blair!

    In my ideal world yes public education would be driven by the individual. I think that the most effective way to teach somebody is with personalized instruction. In a perfect world that would mean each student has their own teacher but because that isn’t affordable, we have to use technology instead. It’s not quite ready to do this completely but I see the pattern that will lead to it.

    The concept of “passing” a “grade” doesn’t have any place in such a model. As an employer for example, I don’t want to know if somebody “passed” (which means demonstrates minimum competency), I want to know how much they actually know about a subject. This will engender a whole new industry that does nothing but certifies knowledge and skills. For example, if I wanted to hire an accountant, I would go to an accountant certification service and select from their members. Besides, just passing a class doesn’t mean you actually know anything later. I passed Calculus in college, but I don’t remember a single thing now. Based on my transcript I know Calculus. That is a problem because people will regularly change careers in their life so knowledge and learning will need to be re-certified constantly.

    The question we need to ask as a society is does everyone have to have certain core competencies? Does society get to dictate what a person must learn? Right now we are saying yes it does and getting poor results for it. As for your students using Sketchup, your big challenge as a teacher will be to try to incorporate other disciplines into what he is learning because really your hands are tied. You are forced to try to force him to learn certain things. However, I taught 3d graphics like he is doing for a decade and know there are all sorts of interesting topics you can mesh into it. See if he wants to make models for video games. That requires physics, color theory, light propagation and computer science just to name a few topics.

    Best of luck and thank you so much for your excellent comment!!

    • Thanks for your speedy reply. So I’ve taken your programming/video gaming slant and am incorporating the motion ( quadratic, projectile motion ) into tomorrow’s lesson….modelling quadratics using technology with the carrot of Angry Birds. Thanks again.

      • You can’t really go wrong with Angry Birds in a lesson. Best of luck!!

  3. What you’re talking about here applies to teachers as well. I teach at college and nothing sucks the joy out of teaching more than administrative efforts to control, standardize and regulate what goes on in the classroom. I don’t teach in a highly “linear” field. There is methodological progress that can be made in the humanities, but you don’t aboslutely need to master all of step A before you can go to B. It doesn’t matter if my western civ class emphasizes the Romans more than the Greeks or the other way around, whether I lecture as much as my colleague on Kepler and Galileo or on monasticism. What matters is that the general outline is covered and that the students are introduced to some areas in more detail to get an idea of how history works. Some spend more time on World War One, some more time on the Depression and World War Two. Some do more social history, some more political history. That doesn’t matter. If the college leadership makes all the classes the same, no teacher can emphasize his or her strengths and passions.

    And in online education there is more and more micromanagement of how classrooms are run – mandatory response techniques, quantitative, word-count-based evaluation of teacher activity, etc. It is demoralizing. It guarantees a certain minimum, but along with the indirect constraints put on teaching by the low pay, it also physically prevents going upward or trying new things.

    Right now I am frustrated with the limited ability to really communicate and focus student attention in the online classroom. When I sit and brainstorm ideas, my creativity is strictly and directly limited by school-wide, rigid requirements for how I teach. I can’t think of a new idea within the confines of school-wide mandates and standardization.

    My teaching is now driven in part by fear and I can attest that this is not a good thing. Can I do X, Y or Z without being fired? And I’m not talking about glorifying violence, teaching racism or pornography or passing out candy. I just want to be able to try a new format for online conferences – but I’m afraid to even ask, and, to be honest, a bit bitter that I should even have to.

    And if my passion is gone, it doesn’t matter how well the mechanics go. No passion can rub off on the students. They’re on their own to catch fire and fall in love with the material.

    (This isn’t directly related, but does relate in an indirect way: All this is part of the reason why I am skeptical about the underlying positive tone of this blog some of the time. Again and again we read that this or that change – almost all about technological changes – are inevitable, like the explicit analogy to the force of nature that is the title here, and most of the time with the undercurrent that it is a good thing and teachers will just have to buck up and go along. Not always. We have to find a middle ground between being anti-innovation fuddy-duddies on the one hand and being a bullwark against technocratic, “Education PhD”-driven, administration driven, profit driven and gadget-based, factory-like education. Our front-line experience matters and we should call “foul” more often.)

    • You are exactly right MH. It does apply to teachers as well. It makes sense if you understand the true nature of schools as factories.

      Let’s say you are the owner of a factory that makes cars. Do you want a factory worker that decides how to do their job? Let’s say they are in the paint show. Do you want them to paint the car however they want? No of course not, you need them to do as their are told. They don’t need to use their own judgment and initiative. In fact, that will mess up the production process.

      A factory model is all about consistency. This applies as much to the workers as to the product.

      Keep your faith and look for opportunities. Not so much in the existing system but look for opportunities in online learning and startups. There are people out there who are trying to come up with a better way to do things. If you are passionate you could be one of them.

      I realize I am optimistic on this blog. I think the answer why deserves a whole blog post itself. 🙂 Let me get on that.

  4. The time to accomplish competency will be flexible

  5. […] my most recent blog post called The Best Way To Learn: Carrot Or Stick commenter MH wrote the following: This isn’t directly related, but does relate in an indirect […]

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