Bankers and Learners

          March 2009

Dear readers,

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services committee and a long-standing critic of executive largesse, said the bonuses tallied by a recent Associated Press review amount to a bribe “to get them to do the jobs for which they are well paid in the first place. “Most of us sign on to do jobs and we do them best we can,” said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. “We’re told that some of the most highly paid people in executive positions are different. They need extra money to be motivated!”

Yes! The above-mentioned AP study of bonuses in the banking industry has solved another mystery for me: Why the Big Boys on Wall Street and in Finance think bonuses are the way to go.

Employers wring their hands and bemoan the lack of “work ethic:” meanwhile they urge us to systematically undermine it, starting with little kids. When you give a reward for something that otherwise someone would do anyway, you actually undermine the motivation to do it. And we call it school reform. (Instilling a love of good work is now labeled “traditionalist”” and/or “romantic.” So be it. I guess I’m a traditionalist then.)

After a while the bonuses become more important than the good work—even indistinguishable from each other. That’s Campbell’s Law. The higher the stakes or the bigger the bonus, the greater the focus is on the “indicator”—and manipulating indicators becomes the real purpose of the task.

Now, in schools, we have a whole system built around trying to find a simple “objective” indicator for offering such high stakes rewards—tests—and then we heap more and more stakes onto this fragile reed. It replaces the reality we are trying to measure. And it breaks. The reed—rewards for test scores—has collapsed under the weight of all the phony assumptions and purposes that we’ve piled upon it. Our solution: pile on more.

This move to undermine a love of doing a good job, or for learning, for it’s own sake is starting earlier and earlier. We’re about to launch an effort to undermine childhood starting at birth, if we get a chance. Yes, things can get worse. We’re at a crossroads about what happens even before our children enter into our “reformed” schools.

We need to reverse gears. Starting off by providing early childhood programs – fulltime for working mothers, and part-time for others—that incorporates the best of what a strong and wealthy family offers its youngsters: Good health care, sufficient leisure for families to connect with their own children, lots of unhurried trust and freedom. Children need space for continuing the natural search for explanations, laws, rules, ideas—leading to more and more knowledge which in turn leads to more and more curiosity for more explanations, the mastery of a larger part of the world. At the same time, kids need to keep company with adults engaged in real life work: cooking, cleaning up after themselves, playing music, singing, sawing, hammering, making and creating. They need adults who are living examples of what they too might become. They need to be in the company of older children and younger ones, so they can measure themselves against a wide range of possibilities. They need the affection of both their parents and the caretakers who are substituting for parents. Unconditional affection is not a synonym for unconditional freedom. In fact, love requires limits, of course.

Given the right circumstances, all this might be possible. But it’s not cheap. “Traditionally” we “paid” one fulltime adult to do this for only a few children. Only in schools do we imagine one can both supervise and instruct several dozen children at once!

Given the wrong setting, we undermine precisely the qualities of heart and mind that schools claim are needed—later on. Teachers long for kids in school who don’t need continuing and constant rewards, who are motivated, easily enthused, good playmates and coworkers. After we’ve eliminated these traits, it is hard to get them back.

Perhaps schools cannot help but be “judgmental.” As Vivian Paley reminds us, the severest judgments are those of one’s age-peers, the pecking order that too often prepares children for life’s pecking order, and over which adults so often appear powerless to interfere. Mutual respect is the obvious quality one finds in the best of early childhood programs—a quality that flows from adult curiosity and affection—a delight and interest in each child’s different accomplishments. Perhaps even, at times, their lack of anxious concern over such accomplishments—their “of course, I knew you could/would.”

Can we en masse create what the most favored family can offer it’s young? Well, perhaps not, but we can come a lot closer if we don’t design early childhood around prepping children for being hedge fund managers working for annual bonuses.

The joy of playfulness is what we can pass along. Telling children stories can be either play and instruction: entered into by adults who love the sound of words and the plots of children’s stories, or told by adults who are seeking to “teach”—expand vocabulary, improve test scores, extend attention spans, and other “measurable outcomes.”

Play will probably (I hope?) happen no matter what. But in today’s climate will it be driven inwards in potentially less healthy ways. Will it become divorced from the possibilities it offers when we can shine light on it, become partners in it (when invited), and add to it? Watch the great early childhood teacher as she brings in new materials—books, fabric, tools, etc—that she thinks will enhance the play; give it new ways to move forward. Just the “right word,” just the right piece of equipment, that can be ignored because it doesn’t match or grabbed on to because it matches like a glove. Or sometimes lays dormant for a while—no new glove is needed—but still it lies there teasing the child’s mind, until it finds an unexpected fit.

Only boring work needs “rewards”—“bonuses”—stars—even commendation. And there is nothing more inefficient for learning than boring work. It literally has no business in places designed for achievement—much less early childhood. One thing stands out from a visit I made to an Israeli kibbutz thirty years ago. Knowing that everyone would at some time hold every job, they had spent a lot of time making sure every job was interesting. For efficiency’s sake.

Children are “wired” to be interested unless we interfere with that wiring. That’s what all those “prizes” do—they leave unconnected wires all over the place. Finally, like with those misguided bankers, they corrupt what began as a promising activity, injuring all the parties to it: the bankers and those dependent upon them, our children and the society that needs them.

Play is a must—and the luckiest of adults carry with them the wisdom and satisfaction of play all their lives. And they live happily ever after.


© 2009 Deborah Meier

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