Saturday, March 15, 2008

More parent-teacher interview surprises

I have written before that we seem to be constantly surprised when we go to our eldest's parent-teacher interviews; pleasantly surprised that is. Last year, it was her good behaviour and it turned out to be the incentives that did it. This year, different thing but same story.

The interview was with her two 4th grade teachers. Her main teacher and her teacher for a second language. I must admit that we think learning a second language is a good thing but not so much that we have ever encouraged it or cared less. So in parent-teacher interviews, the language teacher gets little (alright, none) of our attention.

So after much for the interview with the main teacher we came to the obligatory language assessment. Usually, our daughter is doing fine. This time we got: "she is star. She is the best. We think she is gifted." This provoked the response: "really? We had no idea. How do you know?"

Well, it turns out how they know is that they keep a posted set of rankings taking all kids in the class: 1 - 22. And it is based on the teacher's assessment in language performance. Suffice it to say, my daughter -- who had previously shown as much interest in the subject as us -- jumped straight to No.1 and has not budged since. Well, isn't that interesting?

It was then that her main teacher -- who, in many respects, had popped straight out of the 60s -- piped up:

"Hmm, I wonder why she doesn't do that for other subjects."

"Well, do you have a ranking?" I asked.


"Does it work the same way?"

"Well, each week a start out with each child getting a random position but after that they can move up by challenging other children. Your daughter usually climbs to about 3 or 4 and then stops,"

Ahh, so it was a muted incentive system. You can invest all week in climbing to the stop only to find yourself unceremoniously thrown back down. Turned out that our daughter realised this. "I never go down but I am only going to challenge someone above who I know I can beat easily. Otherwise, I will have to try and beat a better person only to lose the ranking in the next week."

Explicit, strong incentives don't work for all children but in our case they do in a stunning way. They think she is gifted in languages. I'm not sure about that but I do know that she can see through incentives. Now that is something I do value.