Saturday, March 25, 2006

Analogies - the good and the bad

I've already looked Gold Star Junkies by David Ruenzel, here and here, and have not been particularly friendly to it. However, like most things in life, it’s not all-bad; some aspects of the article are okay.

Ruenzel’s article is essentially a tirade against forms of extrinsic motivation in schools - hence the title - Gold Star Junkies. Referring to a study on the adverse effects of rewards (note it’s a study on the adverse effect of rewards, not just the effect of rewards, so immediately one is left wondering if we are looking at a case of advocacy research), Ruenzel uses this analogy:
As critics have noted, it seems gratuitous to provide someone incentive to do what they already enjoy; in the parlance of behavioral studies, it's a case of "overjustification." Rewarding children who draw with markers, after all, is like rewarding kids with ice cream sundaes for watching television.
Ruenzel has used this analogy (actually a simile) to illustrate his point in order to make it more convincing. This is a common tactic used in argument. But analogies can never be used to prove a point, only to illustrate it. Not only this, there are varying degrees of "aptness" for analogies, from completely apt, to completely false.

Ruenzel's analogy in this case is quite apt. In the sentence preceding the analogy he points out that it is silly to reward someone for doing something they already enjoy. Kids enjoy using magic markers, just as they enjoy TV. It follows that there is no need for a reward system in either case. The analogy he uses has not proved his point, but it has illustrated it further, making it more convincing. (In saying that, his conclusion is really quite obvious and mundane - if children are intrinsically motivated there is no need for extrinsic motivation. Well, of course…).

Now don't get me wrong, I was surprised that Ruenzel was able to make a reasonable point. Not to worry, he produces an entirely fallacious False Analogy at the end of his article:
To judge the necessarily variegated skills of students and teachers with an endless series of tests is as absurd as it is unfair-like putting huge scoreboards in classrooms and expecting adults and children to teach and learn under their imposing glare.
No, tests are entirely unlike putting huge scoreboards in a classroom. They are exactly like... tests and are used to measure achievement, generally a few times a year. They are not an "endless series", and to claim that they are means Ruenzel is guilty of False Positioning. (Though maybe that idea isn't as absurd as Ruenzel says? That kind of pressure helps athletes and sporting teams produce their best performances. Why not kiddies?)

Here’s a question for Ruenzel. Should we not judge achievement? If you believe we shouldn’t, then how are we to tell if teaching and learning has been successful? How are teachers, schools and students to be held in account to parents and taxpayers? You know - the people who pay for this education...