Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Volunteer Effect

Before I jump back into the weeds here, let's step away for a paragraph and remind ourselves that the question of the moment is "Do charter schools provide a good, workable model for the overall education system?" This is a high bar, but it's one that the reformers themselves set. There are things that many charter schools do which tend to improve student performance and attitude, but which would lose their effectiveness if applied to the general population.

Which brings us to the volunteer effect.

In Influence, Robert Cialdini observes that "we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures." (I couldn't find my copy but it's on page 97 of the library's.)* It's part of the chapter on commitment which is filled facts and examples that are relevant to the current education debate.

Indoctrination plays a large part in the culture of schools like KIPP and HCZ. This isn't a bad practice -- all schools do it to some extent -- but it is particularly important when a school tries to greatly increase student work load. If you are assigning hours of homework every night and study sessions every Saturday and you expect reasonable compliance, you are going to have to make the students believe that hard work is the right thing to do and that it will lead to large rewards.

That kind of belief modification is easiest when subjects see themselves as volunteers who not only chose to engage in the accompanying behaviors but who actually made an effort to do so. This works well in the current incarnation of charter schools, but everyone can't be a volunteer. When educators show the ability to inspire these beliefs in the kids who don't want to be there, then we'll have something.

* As part of this discussion, Cialdini also mentions that small rewards tend to create more long-lasting behavior changes than large rewards. This sets up an interesting topic for a future blog post on economics and compensation.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if we might also be seeing the same thing, in reverse, for public education. When all sides agree that public education has completely failed then maybe this discourages investment in improving schools on the margin 9and moves people to plot escape instead)?