'Enough stick! How about some carrots!'


I have considered patenting a T-shirt with a badly beaten bunny saying, ‘Enough stick! How about some carrots!’ I think of this when addressing my students about my schooling in ‘the day’, and their reaction – wishing for a time machine to return to those practices.
First, I must offer a bit of biography. I grew up in a small Kansas town, where my mother ran the diner and my grandmother ran the shoe repair shop. Both women were smarter than I will ever be, but had relatively little access to education. (My grandmother had a third grade education, and my mother graduated from high school). They modeled for me that learning was a matter of curiosity not economic gain. Both worked long hours, and spent their free time reading (Grandma ‘ Zane Grey novels, Mom, newspaper (cover to cover) and mysteries (in bed at night). Neither had much money, so the library was central to them.
I had similar experience as a child. To me learning was not associated with school (where I did poorly), but with my individual interests. I remember early interests in astronomy and genetics. The latter produced some controversy when after going through family picture albums, I pointed out that my six foot tall grandmother with black hair and brown eyes could not have been the natural child of her short, blonde, blue and green eyed parents. In High School I became fascinated with Hegel’s notions of thesis-antithesis, and began teaching myself Chinese because it was the language spoken in the farthest place from Kansas I could think of. Such study was not included in my high school course work, and I graduated in the bottom 10% of my High School class. ( I tell my students that I had to a become a teacher to see what the inside of a classroom looked like. I spent my elementary years in the hall. I frequently skipped high school, and when I did come was often asked to leave.)
Now for the carrots: First, there were no grade requirements to participate in extra curricular activities. I was in debate and speech from my freshman to senior year, which provided excellent college preparation. Second, when I graduated from high school, the rules were that any public university in Kansas had to accept me. I was able to attend the University of Kansas, which had (and still has) one of the best Chinese programs in the country. Third, because my family was poor, my Pell Grants and other financial aid (including free lodging at a Scholarship Hall on campus) paid for tuition, books, and living expenses. I had on-campus work study jobs, where I often did my homework while earning spending money. Finally, I received Social Security benefits until age 22 while enrolled in college. I even received these benefits for studying abroad, when (after lying to my mother that I had been accepted in an overseas program) I flew to Taiwan with a one-way ticket and fifty dollars. During my two years in Taiwan I was able to attend top universities in Taiwan (there were no entrance requirements for foreign students), work as an interpreter for western doctors learning Chinese medicine, and teach English in a variety of venues.
None of the above would be possible today. My low grades would have kept me out of debate. No university would accept me. Even with Pell Grants I would have to take out loans, and work long hours to pay for college expenses, and my Social Security survivor benefits would have ended at 18.TodayI am amazed at the sacrifices and hard work required of my students. Many take fifteen to eighteen hours a semester while working twenty to thirty hours off campus. It is not surprising that many are of the mindset, ‘What’s the minimum I can do to get an A?’ I often tell students who are negotiating with this mindset that their final will be given in their first year of teaching by elementary and middle school students who have no mercy, and with whom their will be no grade appeal process. When I say this I hear their laughter, but also notice from their expressions, that many have not really thought about real world applications. I follow up by asking, ‘Your purpose as a teacher is to teach every kid that walks in the door. If you can’t do that, who cares if you have a 4.0?’
We should not be surprised at such concentration on grades. The current generation has been raised to value extrinsic rewards. They have heard, ‘Learn this so you can pass the test.’ ‘Get good grades so you’ll be admitted to a good college.’ They have also been threatened with various sticks. ‘If you don’t pass the test, you’ll be retained, or will fail to graduate.’ ‘No university will accept you with low grades and tests scores, and you certainly won’t get a scholarship.’ Teachers today also feel constrained by our society’s emphasis on external measures. When I talk about the field trips and other exploratory learning activities I was able to facilitate as a fifth grade teacher, many say they would love to do such things, but they don’t have the freedom. They say that ‘teaching’ and ‘test preparation’ have become synonyms. This also makes it difficult for teachers to awaken the intrinsic curiosity and creativity of the child. My measure for successful teaching of fifth grade reading was if a parent complained that his or her child had been up all night with a flashlight under the covers reading a book. I considered it my job as teacher to find the book that would keep each child up all night. That meant knowing each child, and knowing a wide range of potential literature. The goal was also long term, not short term. I wanted each child to discover a passion for reading that would last lifelong.
Suggestions In K-12 education we must first de-emphasize testing. It should be understood that standardized tests are a useful diagnostic tool, but should not overpower the judgment of professional educators who see students each day. Second, we should allow more local control of pedagogy, while continuing to coordinate curricula at the state and national level. While we may decide as a state or nation what children should learn, how to make that content meaningful to each child can only be decided by those who actually interact with the particular children. But reforming K-12 education is not enough. We must also look to change our own practices in higher education. First, we must make college financially accessible to all students. Many low-income students, believing that college is not an option to them no matter what they do, decide to drop out, or stop working hard. Second, we should make sure that freshman and sophomores have small classes and excellent teachers, so that fewer decide to drop out of college. If large universities are unable to do this, we may need to consider allowing community colleges to become four-year colleges, or make it easier to transfer credits from community colleges to larger universities. Finally, we need to rescue students who have already left education. Our current drop out rate endangers not only individual students, but our nation as well. Universities could help by partnering with community organizations to create G.E.D. to B.A. programs. Such programs will require resources such as financial aide and family housing, but will pay for themselves many times over when we consider the taxes paid by an individual with an B.A. compared with a high school drop out. So ‘ let us return to the mind set from previous times. I remember that my grandmother and mother always believed that they should work to make sure that education was more accessible to future generations. A return to such a mind set would make for a better world today and tomorrow. Our motto should be, ‘Increase rewards, not punishment.’ Time to grow more carrots and throw away the sticks.