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    Because Philosophy is Where We Start

    January 28, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    I am currently waiting for my dryer to complete a cycle, which means this may be the shortest and/or sloppiest blog post I’ve ever written. But I’ve been thinking about something all day, and I thought I’d bring it up here.

    Also, I’m home alone and there is no one else to torment with my thoughts.

    So here goes.

    The questions of giving allowances and paying a child for schoolwork came up in one of the AO discussions. I do not want to talk here about whether you or I give allowances or if it is ever appropriate to pay for schoolwork. Instead, I want to talk about what we simply must talk about before we talk about these things.

    Charlotte Mason, Classical Education

    Have you ever wondered why our friends Charlotte Mason’s final triumph {also known as her sixth volume} was called A Philosophy of Education and not The Best Curriculum Ever?

    It’s because philosophy — our beliefs about something — precede action.

    Or, at least, it ought to. When it doesn’t we get ourselves into trouble.

    How many times have we done something, later to repent of it and realize it didn’t actually match what we believed about the nature of the situation? We simply had acted so thoughtlessly — or thought about the situation wrongly — that we made a bad decision and took a wrong action.

    This is why Charlotte spends hundreds of pages talking about philosophy before she ever talks about curriculum. How can we be expected to understand and implement a curriculum — however beautiful and perfect it may seem — when we have not explored the first principles behind it?

    Especially in regard to paying for schoolwork–or giving grades or earning prizes or whatever it is that someone you know started doing and got instant results even–we need to ask the important questions first.

    What is a child?

    What is learning?

    What is the appropriate motivation for learning?

    What are the inappropriate motivations for learning?

    How do we cultivate the appropriate motive{s} while also discouraging the inappropriate motives?

    I am reminded of George Sanker’s lecture at CiRCE this year entitled Escaping the Ed School Trap. I don’t remember the context of this story, but I remember that he mentioned a school that used “bucks” as a motivation for their students. This was a very big deal — the school improved student test scores almost immediately. Students could earn bucks that they could spend like cash in the school store, or save up and use to pay for school trips. Sounds like fun, right? Well, Sanker says that these same “successful” students dropped off the map in college when there were no more bucks to be earned.


    What can we learn from this?

    The students were never motivated to learn. They did not learn to love their subjects. They did not learn to love reading. They did not learn to love knowledge and wisdom and goodness and truth and beauty.

    They had learned to love Bucks.

    When we think about this in terms of character formation, we see what dangerous ground this school has tread.

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  • Reply Mystie February 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Yes! That’s a good video. It’s actually a summary of the book “Drive” that I mentioned.

  • Reply Elizabeth February 1, 2012 at 4:16 am

    This discussion of motivation makes me think of an RSA video that I’ve watched.
    It’s 10 minutes long and very interesting. It said what Mystie said, that rewards work well to motivate non-thinking skills, but, has the opposite effect on thinking, creative skills. It says that the 3 things that motivate us are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Reply Mystie January 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    I just finished listening to the book Drive, about motivation, and it said rewards work to motivate tedious, factory-like rote work, but actually end up demotivating when used to reward creative work that requires personal involvement. Creative work that requires personal involvement contains intrinsic rewards, he argues, that are muted if extrinsic rewards are introduced.

    It was a fascinating read, and I felt like it was a case of current behavioral science finally beginning to catch up to CM. 🙂

    On the allowance thing, we do a mix. They help out without being paid for it, but they also have “jobs” (specific chores) that they get paid for (no “allowance”) because we want them to learn that money is connected to work. And we do want them to get practice earning, managing, and spending money in the little leagues. 🙂 But the primary reason we began is because we wanted the boys to put their own earned money in the offering plate at church, rather than simply put our money in for us. I think it is more true involvement and connection that way.

  • Reply Kansas Mom January 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    I just read a book called Raising Financially Fit Kids (I think) that posits allowances are indispensable as a tool for teaching children how to manage money, starting with a small one at a young age and increasing as children grow and take responsibility for more of their own expenses (like clothes and school fees for teenagers). It is, however, nothing else – not to be used as a reward or a punishment, not to be given in exchange for chores (though extra money could be earned by doing labor beyond chores). I’m not sure I agree with everything in the book (I need some time to consider it now that I’m done reading it), but I did like the bit on allowances.

    Of course, I love giving the kids an allowance and will never go back to none (unless our family finances require it).

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Kelly, You just reminded me that I need to read Aristotle!

    Amy, Thank you for the anecdotal evidence. I know for myself grades had that effect–I worked for the grades, was proud of the grades, and rarely considered the knowledge after the test, especially when I was younger.

    KM, You are the second person this week quoting Punished by Rewards to me! I’ll have to put it on my wishlist. I agree with you that not all rewards are equal–I actually think what CM was trying to do was get all lesser rewards out of the way so that the student could enjoy the *real* and *best* reward of knowledge itself and the triumph of figuring something out or making connections. I liked your idea of rewarding readings with books!

    Kathy, I still need to read your post on allowances! That is the part I haven’t thought through very much.

    Phyllis, I was *not* writing to you directly! I hope you didn’t think that! After the conversation, my mind was just spinning over the ideas involved. This was me hashing it out with myself. 🙂

  • Reply Phyllis January 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Thank you! I doubt that you were writing directly to me, but I was one of the ones who was participating in that discussion without having thought out where I stand.

  • Reply Kathy January 30, 2012 at 3:08 am


  • Reply Kansas Mom January 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    It seems every school has some reward system, for behavior if not for grades. The more I hear about such things, the more I am glad we are homeschooling.

    I read a book that made me think more extensively about rewards, not just for children, but for adults. (It’s Punished by Rewards.) This tendency carries over into the employer/employee relationship as well as the government/citizen relationship.

    I think it’s important to remember, though, that not all rewards are equal. I try to reward behavior with similar behavior. So, for example, when First Son reads a certain number of books, I think it would be appropriate to let him choose a new book to own. If he does not dawdle over his lessons, he is able to use that time for play or silent reading (rather than saying something like, “Now you have some extra time to do more chores!”). And we reward good responsibility with more responsibility. In fact, we are trying to focus more on abilities and demonstrated skills than age when determining such things.

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... January 28, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Very good points!! My Christian school used to have “rewards” like this and I remember being much more motivated by those than actually loving to learn or caring about WHAT I was learning…

  • Reply Kelly January 28, 2012 at 4:16 am

    My parents were of the “Virtue is its own reward” school of thought and never gave rewards of any kind for grades. I rather resented it when my friends started getting $5 per A, $4 per B, and so forth, but now I’m so glad they didn’t do that to me.

    I’ve been trying to read Aristotle’s section on education in Politics, and have never gotten very far, but I keep re-reading the first couple of sections. This is Book VIII, section 2:

    “[A]ny occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind.” [tr. Benjamin Jowett]

    I don’t agree with everything he says in those first two sections, but this one is exactly right.

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