Monday, August 01, 2011

Schooling Compulsion, Incentives, and Literacy

There are at least two different ways of getting someone to learn something. You can offer to teach him something he wants to know, or you can compel him to learn something you want him to know. Unschooling uses the first approach, conventional schooling the second. One difference between the two is their effect on the incentives of teachers.

Consider the case of literacy. The ability to read is useful to almost everyone in a modern society, so one would like an educational system that does a good job of teaching it. It is widely believed that the current American system does not.

If the objective is to teach people to read, the obvious starting point is to ask what sorts of things those people would enjoy reading, since it is easier to get someone to do something he likes doing. The answer might be comic books, car magazines, science fiction, fantasy, soap opera summaries, or any of a wide variety of other sorts of written material, depending on the particular people being taught. 

As best I can tell, that is not the approach taken by conventional K-12 schooling. Instead, students are assigned to read books chosen on one of two criteria. Either they are books regarded as good literature—famous books from the past or current books that English professors approve of—or books believed to teach lessons that the people selecting the books want taught. That would include biblical literature in the past, patriotism—or acceptance of homosexuality, depending on the state—at present, and a wide range of other lessons, depending on current and local political fashion. While it is always possible that the books chosen would also be ones students enjoyed—I'm very fond of Kipling, some of whose stories might be assigned reading in English class—that is not what they would be chosen for, so the odds are not very good.

The ability to read is useful to almost everyone. Knowledge of and appreciation for great literature, even if we accept the educational establishment's definition of what qualifies, no doubt can enrich one's life, but on the evidence of what books people actually read it does not enrich the lives of a very large fraction of the population. That suggests that learning the former should probably have considerably higher priority than learning the latter.

In an educational environment where teachers can advise and persuade pupils but not compel them, it will, because the teachers who insist on telling their pupils to read books that the teacher likes and the pupil does not will shortly find their advice ignored. In an environment where teachers can tell students what books to read and, to at least some degree, punish those who fail to obey, on the other hand, there will be a strong temptation to assign the books that the teacher thinks the student ought to read, sacrificing the higher priority of literacy for the lower priority of literature—or, sometimes, propaganda. 

Which may explain why Johnny can't read.

I encountered a different version of the same logic a good many years ago in my own work. My Price Theory textbook was out of print.  I decided to rewrite it into a book targeted at the proverbial intelligent layman, the sort of book that gets read for the fun of it while teaching the reader the basics of an academic subject, in my case economics. My model, insofar as I had one, was The Selfish Gene, a book from which I learned quite a lot about evolutionary biology.

In the course of the project, it occurred to me that there was an important difference between the book I was starting with and the book I intended to end with; nobody would be forced to read the latter. It followed that if at any point the reader decided that it was not worth continuing, I would lose him. To deal with that problem I followed a deliberate policy of starting each chapter with a hook, a puzzle that would sufficiently engage the reader to persuade him to finish the chapter to find the solution. Economics is full of such puzzles; I don't know how hard it would be to do the same thing in another field.

The result, Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life, has been by a sizable margin my most successful book. 

Incentives matter—including mine.


In the interest of honesty, I should add that some people are forced to read Hidden Order, because it is occasionally used as a textbook, even though that was not the purpose it was written for. But not, I think, very many people.


Milhouse said...

I don't know. I read Price Theory for fun, and enjoyed it — but I skipped the mathematical section at the end of each chapter.

Donald Pretari said...

Did you ever read this book, which was written by a good friend of mine?:

Allen Graubard, Free the Children: Radical Reform and the Free School Movement New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Donald Pretari

Scott said...

According to Wikipedia, the countries with the best literacy rate on earth are Georgia and Cuba:

Does that mean we should imitate the Georgian or Cuban system?

John said...

It would be interesting to see what methods of teaching are most effective and efficient, but short of having a market in education, I don't see how we could. It's almost like if the government monopolized the automobile industry before it got started, and they give us a car that can go 2 mph. Because we know we can walk faster, we say it is a failure. But what if they gave us a car that could go 50 mph? We really couldn't say whether it was good or bad because there wouldn't be anything to compare it to. We would have no concept of a 200 mph car. So with education, we know we could learn more if we just sat home and read what we liked, but is that ideal? And I think it is for the subjects that allow for that, but a lot of things just aren't fun to learn. No one likes learning software, for example, but once you master it you can create all kinds of things and make a good living--and that is the motivation that gets people through it.

Milhouse said...

According to Wikipedia, the countries with the best literacy rate on earth are Georgia and Cuba And the source for that? None given. Cuba also claims to have achieved a medical miracle; and Mussolini claimed to have improved the railroads' performance. When you're making things up, you may as well make them good!

Mark Atwood said...

"No one likes learning software"

Lots of people like learning software. Lots of people like learning how to build software. Lots of people like playing around with tools, both software and "rea", learning how to do amazing things with them.

Saying "no one likes learning" is a symptom of the kind of damage the forced education does.

mlesich said...

I would have to agree with you David, the people who influenced me most were not my English teachers but my librarians who were more than willing to provide me with books that I found interesting.

Reza Tahmasebi said...

I think in most of countries the second approach have being used in school. and it is not teachers' fault. Our educational system is wrong esp here in developing countries.
I am going to translate some post of your blog to Persian for interested people, if you let me

David Friedman said...

Feel free to translate my posts into Persian, or any other language for that matter.

Marcel said...

Khan Academy seems to confirm this - kids will apparently learn so much on their own as to make their teachers want to slow them down:

Ari said...

I agree on this.

I never enjoyed the books the school teachers told me to read, except maybe those related to history.

I learnt to speak English orally by talking to foreign people over the Internet when playing video games (eg. your WoW's VoIP). English was never a problem for me, and I scored top of my class, because I learnt so much English from using computers and playing games.

Having a very technical mind, I was very pedantic to learn the grammar correctly in the school though.

In the end of "high school", I saw people who scored high in the exams but were unable to talk fluent English in daily lives.

Being a libertarian, I firmly believe a person has to be motivated to learn something to actually learn it, whether its learning reading, sports, a musical instrument or something else. In my country, where we are forced to school, forced to army and subsidized to college education, many of the inefficiencies resulting from this are quite obvious.

John said...

Learning to ride a bike or drive a car isn't fun in itself and kids need a push in order to go through with it. They need to be shown why these things even if they aren't instantly gratifying. I think this applies to a lot of software and code I have had to learn. It is tedious, and I would not have the discipline or desire to just sit down and learn it without pressure from my professors. I took the classes knowing they would be an investment but I realized it was worth it. I think schools today fail at showing kids that the hard work is worth it. In most of the cases kids will enjoy what they are learning, but there is a lot of competition today with television and video games. And unless kids realize that they need to eventually make a living and learn something useful, they will substitute somewhat fun learning with extremely fun entertainment. So the market in education needs to be accompanied by a market in higher education and business as well to provide the necessary incentives. In another example, I loved learning math in school because my school held competitions where I could get a good mark. This not only pushes kids because they want to beat their peers but also because they know it means something in the end--that people will value these marks as an accurate means of assessment. My point isn't that schools are great, but that homeschooling isn't ideal. It might be the best situation in the current system, but I think schools would still exist in a market and probably come in all shapes and sizes, but in general wholly different than the current school system. I think the best book I've read on the current system is John Holt's "How Children Fail"

scottmatthew said...

I read Price Theory when you taught it a U of Chicago. An elective, so no one force me! But my local library has the "re-write" so I'm going to check it out. Scott

Anonymous said...

What drives me bonkers about reading posts like these is that it makes absolute perfect sense. If you want kids to read, give them something enjoyable, don't cram your own tastes down their throat. And yet, If I brought this up at a cocktail party people would give me odd looks. These same people joke about how much they hated school and in the next breath demand to know if their kid finished his English homework. When I brought up the idea of unschooling to one, I saw an actual look of fear in her eyes and she snapped "My son isn't going to be a dropout"! Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a world populated by mostly crazy people, and it gets lonely.

SheetWise said...

I was always fascinated by A.S. Neill and the Summerhill Academy series -- along with all of the follow-up studies and normal suspects interpreting and misinterpreting what took place. As close to a controlled experiment as I've ever read.

TheVidra said...

@Scott: perhaps it helps that Georgian uses one of the easiest alphabets in the world (one letter for each sound, no capitalization etc; unlike the Latin alphabet, where one sound can be written as "r" or "R" or the handwritten versions of each, which look nothing like each other; or the complex Arabic, Chinese alphabets and so on...); as far as Cuba's literacy rate (and others), the footnote regarding the statistics used confirmed my suspicion: "Data refer to national literacy estimates from censuses or surveys conducted between 1995 and 2005, unless otherwise specified. Due to differences in methodology and timeliness of underlying data, comparisons across countries and over time should be made with caution." On the other hand, having lived in a Communist country, I would say literacy was encouraged by the very fact that, due to widespread poverty, frequent energy crises, lack of funds of the telecommunications monopoly to buy TV rights to top sporting events, movies, and shows, ban on public congregation and very restricted "fun" stuff (discos etc), one of the only forms of entertainment left was reading. Many of my peers devoured books, Jules Verne and Greek mythology early in life, and more advanced stuff through the teenage years (including the thrill of getting their hands on banned authors such as George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn). And I can guarantee the same exact people would not have opened a book had they grown up in the West - simply due to many competing temptations (and the faster pace of life of the West and a more competitive more capitalist system). I am by no means suggesting lack of freedom and a poor allocation of resources is the preferable system, ever, all I am saying is that it does create incentives for cheap easy-to-mass-produce entertainment such as books, and thus might affect literacy rates (hence Cuba>Mexico for example). Also, Cuba was Spain's most advanced colony historically, regardless of the political situation, surpassing even Spain in many aspects (implementation of new technologies such as railroad, education level etc) so that might explain its educational success also. Additionally, many of the high performing countries of the Eastern bloc in math olympiads and the like (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Soviet Union) also had a very strong educational traditions for their elites before communism, so one cannot say that the communist system was the main reason for their success in the field. And the system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kingdom of Romania, Czarist Russia and so on tended to be very conventional schooling (the opposite of unschooling), yet still yielded high results, despite dealing with an impoverished rural population. Perhaps the corporal punishment was incentive enough to learn how to read and write? :)

Anonymous said...

I liked Hidden Order so much, I purchased a used copy of Price Theory, which I admit I have skimmed but not actually read. Hidden Order is a great book.

Tracy W said...

I think you might be starting at too high a level here. From the link you provide, about 1 in 7 adults would struggle to read anything more challenging than a children's picture book. This suggests their problems are with decoding and with background knowledge, not with being obliged to read books they're disinterested in.

I'll also note that motivation, what you are interested in, is not independent of the teacher. Dan Willingham, in his book "Why Do Kids Hate School?" (about the results of cognitive psychology that can contribute to schooling), notes that when his high school biology teacher was due to teach sex, about the time he was 14, him and his friends were deeply excited leading up to the lesson, but the teacher managed to make sex totally boring. And as an adult, he loves cognitive pyschology, but he's been to plenty of boring conferences on cognitive psychology. One of my dormmates in my first year at university, studying physics, said that he had spent his previous year (the last of high school) reminding himself that, despite his current teacher, he really did love physics.

Eric Rasmusen said...

My kids are in grade school now. They are being taught by a double approach: make the kids read certain books (tho even those are chosen to try to appeal to them) and give them rewards for reading other books, of their choice.

To be sure, my kids are probably learning reading mainly on their own via fun stuff like Tolkien and comic books. The real need is to find a method for the kids who are very slow at reading. I was one of those in learning to read French, and applied the post's method, working through Candide and The Three Musketeers with a dictionary.

I'm writing a Regulation Economics text for undergrads. I should try the "hook" idea. I'll take a fresh look at Hidden Order.

Anonymous said...

my mom would say, "reading boring books build character" or something like that..