“Dear Dr. Foster,” the email began. “These past few weeks, the grade six class has been learning about what it means to be a Canadian in Social Studies. As a part of this unit we visited the Ajax Welcome Centre to further our knowledge about immigration.”
Like all good schools, we believe in taking learning outside the walls of the classroom and into the community. Reading the start of this email from the Grade 6 students made me happy because it told me that even our young students were deepening their understanding by expanding their horizons. Learning what it means to be Canadian by talking about immigration took the girls’ learning to a more nuanced level.
The email made me even happier as it continued.
“This was an experience that truly touched our hearts. There we saw many new immigrants who were taking the time to learn English and Canadian culture. We understood how hard it was for them to adjust to a new place as well as make new friends for support. Some of these newcomers were refugees and while fleeing from war, they could hardly bring any possessions. Others didn’t have clothing for the cold, winter climate and came unprepared.”
By having students meet people, by listening to their stories, by asking questions, and seeing the implications of each individual’s circumstances, we were developing empathy beyond mere understanding. Immigration was no longer a concept in a textbook or an item on the evening news. It was real people, with real stories.
The email continued and I became happier still.
“We hope to help them by organizing a clothing drive at Trafalgar.”
Yes! Their learning experience, guided by a sensitive and skilled teacher, moved our girls from understanding to empathy to action. And this is where we want them to be – understanding deeply, feeling authentically, and acting with purpose.
The email didn’t stop there.
“We would like to provide an incentive by recognizing the advisor group that brings in the most clothing. We would do this by awarding that group with the choice of a dress down or a Pyjama day.”
And this is where I had to put my Head of School hat on. I thought about the girls’ request, and crafted this reply:
Dear Grade 6 Class,
Thank you for your email. It makes me so happy to know that your visit to the Ajax Welcome Centre was not only a good learning experience, but helped you understand how difficult it can be for newcomers to Canada. Your thoughtfulness and your desire to help are wonderful.
I fully support your idea of a clothing drive at Trafalgar. It sounds like a great idea!
So here’s a question back to you: How important do you think it is to make this a competition? Do we need to encourage students to help others by giving them a reward? Or do we want to encourage them to help others simply because it’s the right thing to do?
This is a big question, so I encourage you to talk it over together as a class with your teacher. But whatever you decide, advisor competition or not, I fully support you!
Thank you, Grade 6s, for thinking of others and for caring about our community. You make me very proud!
All the best,
Seeing our girls moved to action was wonderful. Ours is a giving community, and I was pleased but not necessarily surprised that they wanted to do something. A commitment to service is something we model and something we hope our students take with them when they graduate.
But we also have a spirited and lively community that loves a good competition. Whose house play is best? Which group brought in the most jars for the Castle Bazaar? Which house cheer was the loudest? It’s all in good fun and admittedly it’s fun to win. I’ll never take that away from the girls because it builds school spirit and forges a sense of belonging. And there’s nothing wrong with good competition.
But should we need an incentive to help others? I see a difference between winning a house cheer off and wanting to provide winter clothing for people you’ve met – people whose stories you’ve heard, and whose hands you’ve shaken. It feels wrong to reward altruism. Shouldn’t we focus instead on intrinsic motivation? On doing something because of how it makes you feel inside, or because it aligns with your values, or because you simply know that it’s the right thing to do?
In his book, The Brighter Side of Human Nature, educational writer, Alfie Kohn, argues that being rewarded for pro-social behaviour actually reduces the likelihood that a person will act that way in the future if a reward is not offered. On the other hand, encouraging individuals to see themselves as generous, something Kohn sees as an appeal to altruism rather than self-interest, encourages future caring and giving back.
Kohn points to research showing how extrinsic motivators actually reduce the likelihood that individuals will repeat pro-social behaviours in the future. One piece of research showed that women who participated in a phone survey without any financial compensation were more likely to help with a future survey compared to women who had been paid for their original participation. Other research showed that second and third graders who were rewarded for donating to a worthy cause were less likely to see themselves as generous, when compared to students who had not been rewarded for their donations.
The question Kohn raises is simply this: Is it not enough to be generous simply because it is right and kind to do so? He points to economic rationales that are put forward in order to justify government spending or encourage private sector action. Creating arguments that highlight how spending to reduce homelessness or combat addiction or educate teenage mothers will result in government savings down the road, suggests that an economic rationale for helping others is needed and expected. We see the same type of argument being made around mental illness in the workplace. We’re told that lost productivity costs Canadian employers close to $17 billion per year, with the implicit message being, companies should do something to help because it’s in their economic best interest.
I believe that Canadian values include a desire to help others simply because it is the right thing to do. Our country’s history of peacekeeping around the world, of welcoming refugees to our country, of ensuring universal healthcare for every Canadian – these things are a part of what it means to be Canadian. So, I wholeheartedly support our grade 6 class in its effort to provide winter clothing for newcomers. I am also incredibly proud that their understanding of a social issue moved to empathy and then to action. That is what good education should do. And when schools get it right, we develop caring children who become caring adults committed to a lifetime of generosity. That’s the Canada I want our students to live in.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the students decided not to offer an incentive. Let’s see how our winter clothing drive goes!