Tuesday, November 07, 2006

davening for the donuts

My son came home from school last week and told me that the principal announced in the middle of davening that he bought donuts for all the boys, but he expects them to finish davening nicely so they can earn their reward. My son commented that 1) everyone who started davening well from that point was just davening for the donuts, so what’s the point; 2) the principal was obviously not going to return or throw out boxes of donuts that he already purchased, so why make conditions?
Too bad the principal of the school is not as intelligent as my 7th grade son.

(If you are interested in the abused system of reward by incentive (or as my wife puts it, jumping through hoops to earn the fish), the man to read is Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, or see http://www.alfiekohn.org for some interesting articles. I can’t say I’m persuaded by everything he writes, but it is certainly worth considering. He hits the nail right on the head in claiming schools stress short term compliance with expected behaviors over long term inculcation of values - external compliance wins out over internal motivation. Reinforcing good davening with extrinsic rewards gets kids to daven better for the moment, but unless time is taken to build some internal motivation and understanding of davening, why should a kid daven when there is no reward? And if a school run minyan is not the place for that internal value of tefillah to be developed and nurtured, what is?)

10 comments:

  1. yehuda1:13 PM

    The Rambam has a whole list of external incentives;starting with giving a kid a nut all the way to telling an elderly person about getting a better cemetry plot.

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  2. The Rambam lived before there was a concept of scientific reseach into educational metholdology - your citation carries no more weight than had you cited some medical advice from hilchos deyos.

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  3. DavidS3:52 PM

    What about Pavlov's dogs? Eventually the children might associate the positive feelings they get from the donuts with davening and then eventually come to enjoy davening stam for the rest of their lives.

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  4. To quote Kohn, "Extrinsic incentives can, by undermining self-perceived altruism, decrease intrinsic motivation to help others," one group of researchers concluded on the basis of several studies. "A person's kindness, it seems, cannot be bought." (4) The same applies to a person's sense of responsibility, fairness, perseverance, and so on. The lesson a child learns from Skinnerian tactics is that the point of being good is to get rewards.
    IOW, behaviorism cannot inculcate a value. Take a look at the research studies Kohn cites - this is not simply a guess in the dark with no evidence to back it up.

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  5. anon15:33 PM

    I'm not disagreeing that this does not sound like the best educational approach but then how do you reconcile that with the most famous meimrah of chazal le-olam yaasok adam be-torah uve-mitzvos shelolishmah shemetoch etc.
    I believe that maamar chazal is used as support for giving kids candy, etc. More to say (and room to be mechalek) but interested in your take.

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  6. Two points - 1) the very chazal you cite points to lishma as the ultimate goal. The point is to create a system that at least strives to achieve the ideal internal motivation. 2) I don't buy the equation of shelo lishma with extrinsic reward. Too pat. It simply means less than ideal motivation. If I am motivated by curiosity instead of devikus to learn, isn't that also shelo lishma? (OK, we can split hairs on defining shelo lishma, but you get my point).

    One other note on a previous comment - Skinner (father of modern behaviorism) thought of the mind as an unknowable 'black box' and was concerned only with measuring behavior. A true behaviorist would never speak of learning to 'like' davening, only of learning to engage in the behavior of davening. I think this view does not capture the essence of tefillah at all or what chinuch is out to accomplish. I have never liked behaviorism and and far more inclined to accept a cognitive model of psychology - I think most progressive educators, e.g. Dewey, Brunner, Piaget, work within a congnitive, not behaviorist, paradigm.

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  7. Okay, here's the 2 cents from the mom of the boy in question. If one is ever to mature into a responsible and ethical adult, one must be trained not to do good deeds for the sake of the fish/candy or even for parental or teacher approval, it is to do good because it is what is right. I understand the tradition of writing the aleph bays in honey to show a child that the words of Torah are sweet in concrete terms. But that is for a child of three. At some point between 3 and 12, the child should mature enough to advance to a more sophisticated appreciation for learning and davening. If the training does not begin while they are yet impressionable, how would they ever be able to make the transition as adults? Who is going to throw candies at adults for learning Torah.I saw a bumper sticker today that said in Hebrew, "Nothing is sweeter than a daf of Gmara." Ultimately, you want the adult to see that the sweetness is in the experience of leanring itself, not in the candies that come afterwards. (I won't even get into the problem of the bad eating habits encouraged by rewarding children with foods high in sugar and fat and low in nutrition.)
    Another point: this candy and prizes approach is much more commonly used for boys than for girls. Father-and-son learning programs build up excitement with the externals -- the snacks, pizza, raffles, and the possibility of winning prizes. The school itsef rewards the students who stay for mishmar with pizza. A popular rebbe builds up a lot of hoopla about opening up his "prize store." But in a twist: I was very surprised when my 5 year-old girl came home on Monday with a dime given to the children for being good.

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