This weekend, E.-Age-Nine was practicing his math on Khan Academy. Apparently, when he gets an answer right, there is a message that pops up and tells him how great he is doing and how wonderful he is. In order to get him to practice longer or more frequently, he is encouraged to earn badges. His response? He was horrified! He came running into the kitchen:
Mom! That computer is flattering me and trying to bribe me with badges!
Being the sympathetic mother I am, I laughed and I laughed. Then, I told his father and we laughed together. And then I told him that it was okay, that I knew he liked math for its own sake, and to go have fun and just ignore all that other stuff.
It was then that I realized (once again) how right Charlotte Mason was about motivation.
When I first began reading her work about five years ago, the single most striking thought to me was the idea that a student — a human — could love knowledge for its own sake. I hadn’t yet read about ordo amoris (the ordering of the affections). I didn’t know that Mason was talking about something that had been assumed through all of the ages, viz., that man was born to know and could love knowing because of this fact.
I simply knew that when I read the passage to my husband, we both agreed that grades got in the way of real learning. We both knew that over our years of school, we learned to jump through hoops, to give teachers what they wanted. We knew that what mattered was not how much we cared about what we learned (which is Mason’s own test of success), and not even how much we knew. It was all about having high test scores and grades, which were more indicative of our ability to follow rules and regurgitate information we conveniently stored in our short-term memories.
I’m not saying any particular person told us this. This is simply the inherent message of the system. Everything about the system tells the student that he needs to be bribed, cajoled, praised, scolded, rewarded, threatened, or otherwise externally compelled to perform.
I hated this from the very beginning of my mothering. It was pure instinct; I had no reasoning behind the sentiment at all. But when I read Charlotte Mason, all of that changed. She speaks of the schoolmaster’s play upon the appetites — the Desires. By appealing to these appetites, which are often human weaknesses, he empowers these weaknesses. In her sixth volume she mentions the desire of approbation (approval and praise and worrying about what others think of us):
Where we teachers err is in stimulating the wrong Desires to accomplish our end. There is the desire of approbation which even an infant shows, he is not happy unless mother or nurse approve of him. Later this same desire helps him to conquer a sum, climb a hill, bring home a good report from school, and all this is grist to the mill, knowledge to the mind; because the persons whose approbation is worth having care that he should learn and know, conquer idleness, and get habits of steady work, so that his mind may be as duly nourished every day as is his body. Alas for the vanity that attends this desire of approbation, that makes the boy more solicitous for the grin of the stable-boy than for the approval of his master! Nay, this desire for approval may get such possession of him that he thinks of nothing else; he must have approval whether from the worthless or the virtuous. It is supposed that outbreaks of violence, robbery, assassinations, occur at times for the mere sake of infamy, just as deeds of heroism are done for the sake of fame.
She mentions getting good grades (“marks”) and winning prizes:
In the intellectual field, however, there is danger; and nothing worse could have happened to our schools than the system of marks, prizes, place-taking, by which many of them are practically governed. A boy is so taken up with the desire to forge ahead that there is no time to think of anything else. What he learns is not interesting to him; he works to get his remove.
She mentions money — in the form of getting a scholarship. The boy works from a very young age to earn his way into a good university by means of a scholarship. The result?
[T]he boy did not learn to delight in knowledge in his schooldays and the man is shallow in mind and whimsical in judgment.
When I read all of this, I did something that only an impulsive twenty-something mother would probably be brave enough to do (at least without a lot more research): I dropped everything.
No more chore charts. No more “if you do x, you will get a y.” Basically, I stopped bribing my child. It was sort of an experiment. Could we learn to make chores fun? Could we learn to enjoy our work and, as Scripture says, do all for the glory of God?
I tried to teach myself to talk about learning in a different way. It was hard at first for me to separate learning from any sort of reward system because it was so ingrained in my character. Now that it has been a few years, I find myself cringing when someone talks about a grade they received in a course. I would much rather he show excitement about what he is learning. In other words, show me how in love you are with what you are learning. Show me your interest. Then I will know that (1) you are really learning and (2) your teacher has given you good books or inspired you with living ideas.
I’m not saying I’m a complete purist. I use chocolate-covered raisins when potty-training my toddlers. There are Consequences for rebellion around here, too. We also make plenty of room for natural discipline (as in “you break it, you buy it” and “you dirty it, you clean it up”).
I’m primarily talking about intellectual pursuits.
We have to ask ourselves a question about the nature of man: Is man created to be the knower of his world?
If the answer is yes, then we will eliminate the grades and the prizes. They should not be necessary if it is natural that he come to know things.
When Year 1 came around the first time, I was ready. We were going to love learning, yes we were!
I was totally and completely unprepared for my child to dig in his heels and refuse. I’ve talked to enough Amblesiders now to think that this is a fairly common occurrence with six-year-old boys, especially oldest boys. I remember sending him to his room so I could think it over.
It was crunch time, and I had to make a decision. I knew he would respond to grading and charts and prize-winning. I knew I could bribe him into performing for me.
But what I wanted, what I thought would be a sign of being a successful teacher, was nothing less than a love of learning.
What was I going to do?
So I went into his room and told him I’d decided not to care any more than he did. Learning is supposed to be enjoyable, and there are oh so many interesting things to think about, but if you don’t want to think about those things, if you don’t want to learn and grow into a man who knows things, then that is up to you. This is your education, not mine.
Oh, he was horrified! You should have seen the anger on his bright red six-year-old face! He tried to scold me for not caring. Mommies were definitely supposed to care.
Oh, I do care, I said. I was a little amused at this point. But I just don’t think that making you do something is going to make you care, so I’m choosing to only care as much as you. If you don’t want to do math, we won’t do math. But I do think there is something rather silly about a man who can’t even add small numbers. Math is pretty interesting to think about, so it is sad that you won’t ever know about it.
It was a risk, I know. But my instincts told me that at this time, with this particular child, it was the way to go. If I ever wanted to get to the fun part, I was going to have to fight this battle now, rather than pander to his base appetites and try to fight it out later, when he was older.
And it worked.
The next day, he wanted to learn something. And I did try to make it an extra good day, to reinforce my point.
I’m not saying he’s never resisted again, or that we don’t have bad days once in a while. But this particular day was a turning point, not just for him, but for me. I decided which path I was going to walk as a teacher.
And I’ve never looked back.
So I’m sorry, Son, that you can’t bring yourself to accept bribes, and that I read you Pilgrim’s Progress and Proverbs and now you’re sensitive about flattery.
It looks like you’ve been CM-ed.
Take heart. I do think it’s for your good.
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