Educational incentives.

I’ve been thinking recently about grades as an incentive for education.

Not that much of this is a new thought—for me or for society generally—just one I’ve been wanting to explore more. And since I haven’t made much progress in my thinking on the subject, I thought I’d try to blog it out a bit.

I’ve always been independent, so homeschooling suited me well. The two are probably related, but I’m not sure how. It’s a very chicken-and-egg situation.

As a homeschooled kid, grades worked well as an incentive, at first. I wanted to get all As, and when I didn’t get an A (or when I only got an A-), I felt disappointed. In a rudimentary way, I suppose this helped motivate me to study better, but it also tied my sense of self-worth to my achievement: I didn’t study hard because I wanted to learn the subject, I studied hard because I didn’t want feedback that told me I was stupid. (Note: this was all me. My parents never got on my case about grades as far as I can recall, or even emphasized them all that much.)

Once I got older, this incentive fell apart. I think I started college too late: by the time I began Uni, I’d spent four years in the work force, and the thing I liked about working was that it made me feel I was accomplishing something of use to other people.

As a result, the greatest de-motivator in college was the acute awareness that no one cared about my work. Literally: I would write papers for my tutor or professor, fully aware that no one else I knew would be at all interested in reading them, and that even my tutor or professor only read them because they were paid to do so. For all the effort I put in, all I expected in return was a number which felt like it graded my intellect rather than my ability. None of it felt connected to a higher purpose, and since the incentive boiled down to “self-improvement,” I felt at liberty to improve myself according to whatever method I saw fit.

Don’t mistake me: I definitely could have applied myself more in Uni. But I was distracted by many other things which I valued over my grades: building meaningful relationships, exploring the world, and my own side-interests (which included a lot of reading, sewing, and writing my first novel). These things felt more important to me at the time, and while I occasionally feel a twinge of insecurity for not having achieved better grades (maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am?), for the most part I think I made the right call in terms of how I prioritized my time, given the incentives at hand.

Recently, some of my work has become more research-focused. As I’ve been digging around for relevant material, reading papers, and tabulating data, it’s felt a lot like the papers I used to write in school. Only this time I’m not only getting paid to write them (which is nice!), but I know my work serves a purpose. I’m getting paid to do it because someone has decided it has value to them.

I think there’s something in good trade schools that inspires their students to continue working because the value of their work is so apparent. I think possibly STEM programs feel similarly applicable to the real world, even while you’re still learning. I feel like humanities subjects also have important, real-world applications, but these don’t seem to be as obvious when you’re studying them, because they’re often not connected to real-world outcomes. They just feel like a ton of busy work.

Maybe I never got far enough in school to get to the point where studying History became real, useful work, instead of personal fulfillment. Maybe grades as an educational incentive failed me, in the end, because I needed an incentive beyond myself to work on something. I wanted to learn by doing. To be helpful or useful in some way. I’m sure my tutors and professors wanted me to do well for my own sake, but it felt very top-down and parental.

I can understand a lot of this from an educator’s perspective. Again: as an undergrad, by all appearances I wasn’t motivated enough to put exceptional work into my assignments. If that’s the way professors sort the wheat from the chaff, academically speaking, then probably I was just stuck. Maybe the conclusion here really is: I was never cut out for academic work. Or only cut out for independent academic study. Or I should have prioritized differently and shouldn’t blame my failure to do so on other people not providing the right incentives.

All of these could be true! And yet I still find myself drawn to academic work, toying with the idea of going back for postgrad studies, and ultimately deciding against it because I hate the idea of writing more meaningless, busywork papers.

Instead, I find myself asking questions, wondering how I could research them and solve them on my own, and if such research would have value to anyone if I succeeded in producing it. And none of that sounds like laziness or a lack of academic promise. Instead, it looks like my obstinate, independent, homeschooled upbringing showing through.

I wonder if that will prove to be a help or a hinderance in the long run?

I don’t have any answers here yet. This line of thought is a work in progress.

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