On Campus

Good Old Fashioned Education: The Carrot and the Stick

Education is where you find it. Even on the back of a motorcycle, in a parking lot on a Sunday morning.

Continuing on my last Blog entry, I’m newly aware of how education is everywhere. It isn’t just about K to 12 and then post-secondary. It’s also the correspondence course you take to upgrade your qualification in some software suite. It’s the knitting circle you go to each Sunday afternoon where you exchange tips and trade patterns and effectively teach each other. And in my case, this weekend just past, it’s the motorcycle training course I took down at the docks.

This experience started in a classroom, which made me extra aware of it as education. Thursday evening we had our theory and paperwork session and when I showed up it felt very much like school – everyone watching the instructor at the front of the room. There was even a whiteboard. There were about twenty guys there in the room and a few women (sorry, it’s still very much a guy thing, though our lead instructor was a woman) and all the students were very engaged, paying attention and asking questions. I started thinking, who are these guys anyway?

After a full weekend in their company, I can answer that it was pretty much just a cross-section of the population. It felt a bit like high school, really. Just a bunch of people who happen to get thrown together in a classroom through simple luck of the draw. Except that as I recall the typical high school class isn’t nearly so engaged. So again I started thinking, what changed?

The way I see it, motorcycle riding instruction has about the purest balance of carrot and stick incentives imaginable. On the carrot side there are two incentives. First, it’s just a lot of fun. Even riding around a parking lot for the day is fun. Second, even for the experienced riders among us, there’s an insurance incentive to passing a course. So it’s easy enough to stay focused. There are immediate and tangible rewards for doing so.

On the stick side of things there’s just one incentive but it’s a biggie. Motorcycles are scary – even the 125cc ones we were practicing on just today. It doesn’t take a genius to see that riding could get dangerous very fast. The motorcycle itself is plenty big enough to hurt the rider if he isn’t careful (I dropped one on my leg and believe me, I feel it still) but not remotely big enough to protect from any collision with a car, tree, medium-sized animal, etc. You’ve gotta be pretty dumb not to recognize the danger associated with riding around on an engine balanced on two wheels. So again, strong and immediate incentive to concentrate on the task at hand.

The net result was some of the best and most enjoyable education (in any form) that I’ve had in a long time. Some students were more experienced, as I said, and they helped give tips and keep an eye on the newbies like me. But the instructors were first rate and they really made the weekend work. They obviously like their jobs and still get a kick out of riding even if it’s just around a parking lot. They kept things fun and focused without any trouble balancing between the two and the results were dramatic. Even inexperienced riders such as myself (note – I don’t even have a driver’s license) were soon riding at a level we could never have imagined at the start.

When I see disengaged students, in other educational contexts, the immediate question that always occurs to me is “why are they here?” The number one reason why students disengage, in my opinion, is just that they lose sight of their goals and motives. Carrot and stick. What are you trying to gain? What are you seeking to avoid? For all the complexity of our motives, it always comes down to one or the other or a combination of the two.

Life is learning. I can’t think who first said, “When you stop learning you’re dead,” but it’s still a good expression to recall. We’re all learning things all the time it’s just we don’t often think of this as education. Any time you need some insight into what’s wrong or inadequate with formal education just look at all the informal kinds you witness and participate in every day. It may not be as structured as a weekend riding course but it all counts. Even something as simple as figuring out how to operate your new satellite television is education – and it comes with a very immediate reward, too!

Something I’ve noticed in university level education is a great unwillingness to deal directly with this question. What’s the reward associated with getting this education? What’s the danger associated with not getting it? We may not all have the same answers (in fact, I’m certain we don’tread my book) but we needn’t avoid the question. Acting as though it should be self-evident does no one any favors. If my instructors from this weekend could find the time to explain the incentives and dangers associated with motorcycle riding, I think the average professor should be able to explain the same about English, or philosophy, or anthropology.

For anyone who may be interested, I very strongly endorse the Rider Training Institute. I had a long way to go as a student, and they worked me through it rather than pushing me. The course is worth many times what it actually costs. I’ve still got a lot of learning left to do on my own (isn’t a good education always one that we continue on our own?) but they definitely got me started right.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.