Why we should NOT be paying our kids to do their maths homework

A response to Mohamad Jebara, CEO of Mathspace

Mathspace is paying students to complete maths homework. In a talk apparently worthy of TED (and summarised here), CEO Mohamad Jebara explains how, through a model inspired by Steven Levitt’s research, parents can recuperate their weekly subscription charge if their children complete weekly maths exercises.

Jebara acknowledges the unsettling notion of bribing students to do mathematics. He is a self-professed purist, reaching for the words of one Francis Su: “We study mathematics for play, for beauty, for truth, for justice and for love.” It does not get purer than that. Jebara also recognises that school maths reflects none of these traits. It is premised on performance rather than play, shuns beauty for ugly representations, and cares little for truth, justice or love. For Jebara, school maths is a means to an end, a pain that students must endure before enjoying the fruits of mathematics. And by paying students to consume the torrid diet of school maths, we can rest assured that our investment will endow them with a love and appreciation of mathematics in the long term.

The approach, plucked right out of the rationalist playbook, is intriguing. It falls short, however, in its deference to school maths. Jebara is also an apologist for the ugly, confusing form of mathematics that so many students are repelled by. Rather than attempting to beautify the subject, and to seek out more joyous, illuminating representations of mathematics, Jebara makes the fatalistic assumption that the current form of school maths is the only path to enlightenment. He justifies the obnoxious fixation on mathematical facts and procedures by claiming, ‘The more you know, the more you want to know…’ The problem with this edict is that the knowledge of school maths is often illusory. What good is it to ‘know’ procedures that you possess little understanding of? Curiosity is not a natural consequence of mindless consumption.

Jebara is also willing to accept that mathematics must be complex. Mathematics should always feel challenging; indeed, students will only experience the glorious state of flow when a problem is pitched just beyond their current abilities. But the difficulty of school maths usually results in anxiety and despair rather than flow. At times it is needlessly confusing, owing to weak representations, fixed pacing through the curriculum and the absence of reasoning. Mathematics should be perplexing for the right reasons, few of which are found in the curriculum.

Jebara cites evidence that the cash incentives are working: “It turns out that students on the rewards program are 70% more engaged than those not on the program.” What does engagement mean here? Are its proxies usage and exercise completion metrics? If so, how can we be sure that students’ time on Mathspace is productive, and reflective of their best efforts? Every system is made to be gamed, and cash incentives may induce even the best-intentioned students and parents to treat homework as a box-ticking exercise.

The giveaway is the ‘70% increase’ claim — such a statistic can only apply to quantifiable traits. Any attempt to capture engagement so precisely falls short of the deeply innate sense of joy that we want students to experience. I’m not sure Francis Su intended to have his vision for mathematics reduced to blunt measurement.

It should not surprise us that cash incentives are an effective way of getting students to do school maths. Drawing on another TED talk, Daniel Pink resolves the puzzle of motivation by illustrating how extrinsic rewards, such as cash incentives, tend to be more motivating when asking humans to work on low-level cognitive tasks (the kind plastered across the maths curriculum). Higher-order cognitive tasks, on the other hand, are motivating in their own right — the drive is intrinsic and cash incentives are a deterrent if anything. I would suggest that the purist’s version of mathematics, which is predicated on the innate satisfaction of problem posing and solving, is resistant to the lure of money.

That cash is proving to be an incentive for homework only reinforces the superficiality of school maths. Worse, it teaches students that mathematics is necessarily painful and ugly, and that they deserve payment for enduring it. Students who come to associate mathematics with cash rewards may never appreciate the subject in its own right.

It is a shame that Jebara’s own product, Mathspace, displays little of the courage or creativity needed to bring a more uplifting version of maths to life. The plaudits belong to the heroes of mathematics education who are aspirational enough to champion new pedagogies, and practical enough to work within the existing realities of the curriculum. Mathspace, meanwhile, looks and feels very much like the standard form of school maths. It copes with a selection of multi-step problems and allows for handwritten inputs. Yet its technological innovation does nothing to shift the pedagogy of mathematics. Left with a digitised projection of school maths, what is one to do but coerce students into engagement?

The purist would resist the coercive brand of school maths and place their faith in a more uplifting version of mathematics. They would be very sceptical of attempts to pay students for the supposed privilege of engaging with their maths app.

I am a research mathematician turned educator. Say hello on Twitter or LinkedIn and sign up below to receive more content like this.
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