27 Oct 2011


“If I put bandages on my dolls,” Angelina asked one day, “will you give me more pocket money?”

Following the advice of some educationists, I have been giving Angelina pocket money since she was five. The idea sounds great. Children learn to save money and do simple arithmetic. They also become more confident by talking to grownups at the cashier. The interval of giving money is important. If you give every day, children tend to spend the sum at hand and have no incentive to save.

“Why would you want more money?” I asked.

“So that I can buy toys for my brother.”

Hmm, a legitimate reason. “But I don’t need bandages on the dolls. How about tidying up your toys instead?”

Angelina hesitated. She did not want to earn money by doing things she did not like. After some negotiation, she proposed to have the amount linked to her test or dictation results instead.

The next day, I started to feel very guilty. Paying for test results is against all education principles I have learned so far. Coincidentally, my friends at the hospital shared the stories of their children at lunch time.

“But shouldn’t we reward the learning process but not the results?” I asked them tactfully.

“Can you cite one paper to show that it works?” Szeto replied. I was much relieved. Even Szeto said so. Yet, I was still too embarrassed to mention that the reward was money.

Imagine how surprised I was when I read this article from Science last week.[2011;334:300] The National Math and Science Initiative in the United States has been paying students for satisfactory results at the Advanced Placement tests since 2007. The results were remarkable. Under this scheme, the number of students passing the tests increased by 124%, and even by 216% among African Americans and Hispanics. The rate of increase was over four times greater than schools not covered by this scheme.

Of course, the morality behind the scheme is highly debatable. Nonetheless, finding incentives to encourage learning remains the responsibility of teachers.


  1. The story mentioned in Science is a vivid footnote that helps explain the behavior of those genius in Wall Street and the background of financial tsunami.

  2. There are so many tests and dictation nowadays, the kid may get desensitized very soon, I think should better reserve this till important exams.