Swickard: Using Carrots on Students

© 2014 Michael Swickard, Ph.D. There is a lot of talk about getting students to attend school out of a sense of duty and to avoid the truant officer. We can get students into schools using a stick. And, there is a slim chance that some students will thank us in their prayers for teaching them discipline. Don’t hold your breath. Student outcomes usually worsen rather than improve.
     It has been years since I was smacked for being a slacker in high school. I remember the time well. Also I was an English teacher at Albuquerque High School a long time ago. Carrot or stick: I understand both sides of the issue and it is my opinion that carrots work so much better than sticks. 
     Even though there is mandatory attendance, there is not mandatory buy-in. Schools may have their body, but not their mind. Students have free will and many are incredibly shortsighted. They should eat right, do homework, drive responsibly and not hang with the “wrong” kids.
     Each day they should rush to school and sit all twitterpated to hear what words of wisdom the teacher has to say. My father said, “The military cannot make someone do something, but it can make that person sorry they did not.” That is the philosophy of the stick. And it works some of the time. 
However, it does not work with those students who, when told that if they do not graduate they will end up living under a bridge. They usually roll their eyes and say, “Oh, well.” For those students that stick is just a waste of time. At least a third of high school students do not graduate from a free public school education.
     What do we want? We want the students to enthusiastically embrace education and apply themselves to it, and graduate. So why not cut to the chase and use a carrot? Charlie Munger in Poor Charlie’s Almanac wrote, “When you do not get what you want, check the incentives that you are using.”
     These students who do not come to school can learn all of the words to a hundred rap songs with ease. They learn elaborate skateboard tricks. Many are multi-talented in art and music. Why? Because the reward **THEY** want is within their control.
     The secret to getting what we want them to do is to use a carrot they want. What do they want that we can ethically provide? Cars rate high on the student “cool” meter. What if at graduation a new car is given away by a drawing? The keys are given right then to a graduate. That would get their attention. Read full column



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