Puppet on a String: A Summary of My Corruption by Extrinsic RewardsPosted: July 16, 2012
I recently posted that I was thinking about my own contributions and asking what, if anything, would denote something that could be recognised as my mastery of my discipline. On thinking about this, I realised that, once again, I was asking someone else to value my work. For those of you who are educational specialists, rather than a discipline researcher who is on his way to becoming an educational researcher within the discipline, this is probably somewhat amusing, given I keep talking about the need to reduce extrinsic motivation in my students.
I have changed career several times and, if you look at why I’ve done this, a pattern quickly emerges. I tend to leave at the point where I have become competent enough that other people start to tell me that what I am doing is useful, valuable and start trying to reward me. Yet, I go into jobs seeking that kind of recognition and reward. I am corrupted in my intent, by the rewards, and then my intrinsic reward mechanisms become compromised and, after becoming deeply unhappy, I leave.
I realised, over the weekend, that I was becoming so pre-occupied with external approval that it was making me extremely vulnerable to criticism and it was corrupting me in trying to do something that is, whether I like it or not, very important and that I also happen to be good at.
Right now, I am in the middle of trying to work out how to divorce myself from the external rewards that I, irritatingly, crave and that, ultimately, then reduce the joy I take in doing things for my own reasons. It’s not surprising that the tasks that I enjoy the most at the moment are the big challenges, the ones where I’m working several levels above my pay grade or the usual expectations of someone of my level. I’m doing these things because they’re important and, because I’m doing it ‘out of cycle’ so to speak, I can’t be externally rewarded for them – I can just do a good job.
It’s in this same mode of thinking that I’ve decided not to spend any time applying for any local teaching and excellence awards. (I was about to comment on my potential eligibility but this is just another quest for a pat on the head – so I’ve deleted it.) I am either doing my job in the way that I should, and the expectations should be of a satisfactory performance that provides students with an excellent experience, or I should receive guidance, counselling and remedial assistance from my employer. Ultimately, if I don’t meet the standards then I should probably be fired. But if I’m doing well, then that is my job and I don’t need a piece of paper or a cheque to make things better. In fact, that money and time (in deciding upon the awards or writing the applications) should be directed to people who need the improvement, not people who are excelling. I have a meeting with my boss on Friday week and he will tell me whether I’m meeting standard or not.
Now there is a great deal of difference between writing a long application for an award (which is probably not the best investment of time and is seeking extrinsic recognition) and being sent on a course that might be useful because you’ve demonstrated an ability to do something (providing you with useful skills and the ability to develop further). As a general principle, skill development is going to be more useful than a pat on a head. Skill development also works for everyone, it’s just that the courses you use for development vary from person to person.
But this is, of course, completely at odds with the extensive systems of measurement that are now being placed on academics. We are (with widely varying levels of accuracy) measured extensively in terms of learning and teaching, research and administration. By not applying for these awards, I may be significantly altering my possibility of later promotion and opportunity. And, yet, I have to ask myself if I really need to be promoted? What does it mean? I’ve already discovered that people are happy to let you do a wide range of jobs without the requisite ‘academic level’ if you can demonstrate enough aptitude. Sure, it would mean I’d never be able to do certain jobs but, having a look at those jobs, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. 🙂
This is a strange time for me. I can now see the strings around me and how they’ve pulled me around for all of my life. Because I am such a strong believer in being as honest as possible with my students, it has forced me to be honest with myself, as I tear apart the framework I teach within to see how I can improve it and help my students to become self-regulated, intrinsically motivated and happy. Authenticity is the core for me and it is why I can teach with passion.
I was looking at Facebook recently and thinking about the “Like” button. I use it to mean “I am happy about this” or “I support you” but, rather than telling someone this, I hit the “Like” button. I’ve recently noticed that there are “Like” levels in WordPress and as I’ve hit, arbitrary, milestones I’ve received insincere automated badges.
Some of my readers (thank you, again) have been letting me know how they have been using the stuff from here and that has been really helpful for me. I realise that, in this community, “Like” generally means “I agree” or “Nicely written thoughts that ring true” but getting an actual account of how someone has used something that I said turned out to be really powerful. (Unsurprisingly, given how much Kohn I’m reading at the moment!)
So – where to from here? The first thing is to keep to my 40-45 hour working week. That has allowed me to get enough reflection time to get to this stage. I suspect the next is to keep plugging away at everything. This is most definitely not the time to throw everything in the air and meditate in a field. I’ve been trying to think about the advice that I would give to a student in a similar situation and I think I would tell them to keep doing everything and set some time aside over the next couple of weeks to identify the key issues, then start stripping away clutter until they were able to get a clear view of how they could achieve what was important to them. It will, at least, be a start.