Debate Magazine

What Cheaters and Sadists Can Teach Us About School (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I recently came across an interesting study on competition:

What happens when you recruit dozens of students to perform a maze-based computer task and then you ratchet up the competitive pressure? Does their performance improve or do they just cheat more?

Christiane Schwieren and Doris Weichselbaumer found out by having 33 men and 32 women at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona spend 30 minutes completing on-screen mazes. Crucially, half the students were paid according to how many mazes they completed whereas the half in the ‘highly competitive’ condition were only paid per maze if they were the top performer in their group of six students.

The students in the highly competitive condition narrowed their eyes, rolled up their sleeves, focused their minds and cheated. That’s right, the students playing under the more competitive prize rules didn’t complete any more mazes than students in the control group, they just cheated more.

Reading this reminded me of the work of Yale University researcher Stanley Milgram. His most famous book is called Obedience, which details experiments that revealed 65 percent of his subjects were willing to give 450-volt electric shocks to innocent people crying out in pain, simply because a scientific authority told them to do so.

Milgram concluded, “The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

Were the people who gave the electric shocks sadistic people? Were the people who cheated in the maze study above immoral folks? I don’t think so.

Similarly, kids who fall asleep in class, who don’t do their homework, and who take the bathroom pass and spend the class period roaming the halls—these aren’t bad kids. And don’t think for a minute that they don’t want to learn.  They are, like Milgram suggests, products of their environment.

When you tell kids to study in order to get a good grade, you’re cultivating an environment in which external rewards are more important than learning.

When you tell kids to study so they can get into a good college, you’re cultivating an environment in which the future is more important than the present.

When you tell kids they need to ask permission to use the bathroom, you’re cultivating an environment that encourages them to look always to authority figures for what to do.

Transforming our schools has almost nothing to do with curriculum, and almost everything to do with the environments we create for kids.


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