Designing the motivational model for students of gt.school has been one of the more challenging and contentious tasks. We are very confident of the appeal of gt.school to parents. Every parent wants their child to reach their full potential. But what is in it for the student? gt.school is an after school program and the #1 feedback we received from kids is very clear – “I don’t want to go to school after school”.
We have no interest in gt.school being a program that is forced on kids by their parents. We are dedicated to making sure we are driven by student-pull, not parent-push. Our standard is that kids will beg their parents to let them go to gt.school. We want students to LOVE gt.school.
We know that this is a high standard which brings a host of new challenges. It puts gt.school in competition with whatever the student does during their free time. The shorthand we use is “gt.school needs to be more compelling than TikTok, Minecraft, Roblox or Fortnite.”
That brings us back to our motivational models. We spent countless hours studying the motivational models used in video games and social media. There are endless books, articles and posts written on how to make games and social media more addictive and more compelling.
And this led to our most heated debate at gt.school. Would we use all the motivational tools at our disposal as we design our program? Would we be willing to use techniques that have proven effective but are not used in traditional educational settings? I’m sure you can imagine both sides of the argument.
We decide on YES, we will use aggressive, effective techniques even if they aren’t part of the standard educational playbook. We fully understand that going outside the normal invites controversy.
Let’s talk about three of the most contentious: setting super ambitious goals, leaderboards (stack ranking), and paying students for performance.
Super Ambitious Goals
We didn’t expect that setting super ambitious goals would be controversial. We are big believers in Tyler Cowen’s view that raising the aspirations of young people is one of the lowest cost, highest return activities a teacher can do.
Setting ambitious goals for young people is common in other fields. No one blinks when in some sports an athletically gifted child is told they can be the best in the world in their teenage years. Google “number of teenagers who won gold medal olympics” if you want to read some of the millions of hits.
We’ve received pushback from parents-more so than kids. The pushback comes on two dimensions: “there is no need for aggressive goals” and “I don’t want my child to fail”. When we proposed the following to a group of parents – “We will design a program so that kids who go through our program will, by the 8th grade, know everything you knew when you went to college.”, it was overwhelmingly rejected as unnecessary and potentially leading to unbalanced kids. We disagree that it is unnecessary. You can’t unlock a child’s potential without aggressive goals and we made sure the gt.school program, which encompasses life skills and coaching, leads to a more well rounded student.
On the other end, for many parents and kids, the first reaction we get is “these goals are too hard.” We believe many parents think that it is better to set goals you can make, rather than goals that require you to stretch and sometimes fail. They feel the failure is painful for their child and leads to discouragement. We acknowledge that can happen. But it is not foreordained. gt.school has a culture built on ambitious goals being inspiring. We have stolen the creed of one of our favorite educators: “Build a school that is a supportive space, so that kids are willing and feel safe to fail”. When kids feel safe to fail, failure becomes another step in achieving their goals, not a sign to give up.
On the other hand, we KNEW that leaderboards and stack ranking would cause immediate pushback. While leaderboards have been used in academics (most schools have a class rank), they are used sparingly and often reluctantly. Our research and experience has led us to the following insight – For the subset of students who are driven competitively, leaderboards are super effective at driving behavior. Video game design is built around this. Video games designers understand that not all their players are there for the competition, so they design mechanisms where the competition is optional. We do the same at gt.school. For those who want to opt in to the competition, it is there (and super effective). For those who don’t want to, they engage in different ways and we have different incentives for them.
The last motivational technique is our most effective. It also is the most likely to cause outrage among parents. We overtly pay students for performance. Specifically, we issue a debit card to each student and pay them for certain activities and accomplishments.
We pay for the consistent execution of daily practice and habits. Many gt kids are like gifted athletes, their natural skill allows them to get away with poor habits. The easiest example to understand is “cramming”. There is plenty of learning science that shows consistent, spaced repetition is 2-3x more effective than last minute cramming. GT students can often get A’s in school just by studying the night before. But, like athletes with bad habits, this catches up to them later in life. The development of good daily practice habits is one of the best things gt.kids can learn and develop, so we are happy to pay for it.
The 2nd item we pay for at gt.school is the achievement of 99th percentile on the MAP test. It is a goal we commit to and this payment aligns the student with hitting that goal, and doing it forthwith. For parents of an underachieving GT student, both the effort put in and the speed at which their child achieves 99th percentile is a Wow! moment.
Like most areas of learning science, there are studies that are mixed on its effectiveness, however some of the largest studies show very positive results.
In the late 2000s, Roland Fryer conducted a series of studies involving 36,000 students across roughly 290 schools. He found that paying students for their inputs, such as the number of books they read, or how many math objectives they mastered, was highly effective at increasing student achievement, which was measured by reading comprehension and standardized test scores.
Parents have been paying students for good grades for hundreds of years. gt.school just differs in the deliberateness and amount. We have been loath to build an online only educational model because so much of our experience in building great cultures and environments requires being there in-person. When we decided to build an online-only environment like gt.school, we decided we needed to bring the motivational technique that has the greatest impact and works in an online world. Paying students a couple thousand dollars throughout the year is that solution.
We believe building a great culture and community is essential to gt.school and a large part of its value. But culture building takes time and we need capture the students’ attention immediately. Paying for performance encourages kids to instantly dive in and engage while they build relationships and friends over the longer term.