We created an Individualized Learning class (on Steroids)… And here’s what happened

As you probably know, humans respond to incentives.  You may also know, that way back in 1911 an industrial engineer named Frederick Taylor published the book Scientific Management.  This book laid the founding principles many people still use in management today.

The basic one line summary was: reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.  Most factories began to adopt this process and in many cases it worked.

Rewarding Students

Schools also adopted this approach.  Students are “rewarded” with good grades and “punished” with bad grades, detentions, or other disciplinary actions.

Some schools even employ a “classroom economy” in hopes that this will motivate students to “behave.”

This is how schools have operated for decades and many of us grew up in this type of environment.

Here’s the problem…It doesn’t work.

Roland Fryer, head of Harvard’s Education Innovation Lab, wanted to see if paying students, teachers, or parents would help.  He has paid:

  • Students for reading books
  • Teachers for raising their students’ test scores
  • Parents for attending parent-teacher conferences,
  • He has given kids cell phones to inspire them to study harder
  • Altogether, he has handed out millions of dollars in rewards and prizes.

As a body of work, Fryer’s incentive studies have marked one of the biggest and most thorough educational experiments in American history.

And yet, in almost every case, the effect of Fryer’s incentive programs has been….  


That’s because money is not a primary reinforcer.  In many, many studies suggest that it can actually de-motivate.

(Engagement works. Check out the checklist here.)

Think about it: teenagers will spend hours playing video games, but receive no tangible reward.  Why?

Video games provide incentives that many schools fail to provide: Immediate feedback, levels of progression, autonomy/ choice, and a purpose.

Let’s contrast that against most schools.

In most schools:

  • The reasoning behind activities are abstract at best.
  • The average teenager has less choice than felons in prison,
  • Feedback on assignments comes days or weeks after turning in,
  • There’s no sense of incremental progress (besides being promoted to the next grade).

At San Miguel (a Title I School with 90% FARMs), we sought to change this and added a twice weekly class we call WIN (What I Need).

But here’s the most important part…

WIN Class allows students to see:

  • Certainty – students know exactly what skills they need to work on to improve.
  • Progress – students can see visible progress as they progress through their objectives.
  • Purpose – the purpose of the activities are clear
  • Autonomy – students can choose which objectives they can work on

(Keep Scrolling to the bottom to see how the class works)

(These are all part of the Engagement Checklist which I outline in my book Class Hacker.)

Sounds good right?  But does it work?

Below are the results from our end of year testing:
Screenshot 2017-07-11 14.21.13

* Target Gain is determined by decile at initial testing. This is the target gain for the full year for the student to remain in that decile.


  • Reading – 96% of students improved their reading scores

  • Math – 95% of students improved their math scores

Of course you may say that raising test scores is not the only thing that matters in school, and you would be right.

Yet, it does matter.

Harvard’s Big Test Score Study

Harvard University Study (2013) examined student test scores from grades 3-8.

Then, examined tax records to match future incomes of those students. They did this over a 20 year period (1989 – 2009)

What they found was fascinating

Students Assigned High Value Added Teachers (teachers who got students to GROW) :

  • Earn higher salaries
  • More likely to attend college
  • Less likely to have children as teenagers

Replacing a low growth teacher with a high growth teacher:

“Increased the present value of students’ lifetime income by approx. $250,000 per classroom.”

Still think test scores don’t matter very much?

How Win Class Works

  1. At the beginning of the year, students take the Performance Series test.  This is an adaptive test that pinpoints their strengths and areas for improvement.
  2. These areas are very specific.  After testing, we take that data along with their Suggested Learning Objectives and create a student profile.
  3. We place the student in groups, depending on the area they most need to improve (math or reading)
  4. Students are given their profile of suggested learning objectives.
  5. Students are given access to computer instruction (on their iPad) that correlates to their suggested learning objectives.
  6. Twice a week in WIN Class (30 minutes), Students choose which objectives to work each session and work toward mastery of each of their objectives.

We taught our students how to WIN using the science of motivation and engagement. These principles are available to you too!

PS – If you think motivation and engaging students is important then you might want to check out the Engagement Checklist because it is a surefire way to engage students.


If you think these results are impressive, then you might want to check out my book, because these results can be yours too!

Here’s what said

“It is hard to find books in the field of education that are practical and have solid evidence-based foundation. David Palank manages to hit this great balance. Class Hacker manages to bring a solid and actionable body of knowledge that will improve your students’ learning.”

Screenshot 2017-06-19 09.49.07

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