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Why a Bonus in Education is a Lousy Idea

May 22, 2011

What completely dumbfounds me is how quickly we forget. Barely three years ago, we all stood knee-deep in the economic rubbles. Rubbles caused by an exuberant bonus culture and by what seemed an insatiable greed.

Chasing incentives
Chasing incentives

So, it’s somewhat curious —to say the least— that our Dutch Education Council advises an introduction of financial incentives in our educational system. Looks like not only are we losing our grasp on reality; but now we are also losing perspective of what defines good education and how educators should best perform their jobs.

In the Netherlands, we’re facing a form of disintegrated learning. Our country’s main income relies on international trade. Yet our understanding of other cultures is currently at an all-time low; the English we speak has eroded into what’s jokingly referred to as ‘Dunglish’. We dismiss independent and critical thinking as leftish, old-fashioned and uncool; and (university) graduates are brazenly publishing with typos and faulty grammar.

A narrow-focussed and bonus intertwined education, would quicker aggravate this meagre situation than improve it for the better.

Most educators don’t even want it…

Kilian Wawoe, an organisational psychologist and a former bank co-worker, published his acclaimed book Bonus at the beginning of this year. In his writings he explains how the bonus culture failed as an incentive in the banking world; and how it created the bubble that burst into the economic crises.

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Commissioned by Uitgesproken, Wawoe researched incentives like merit pay and bonuses in the Dutch educational system. Some of his conclusions are: 70% of the educators oppose a bonus-system; the educators prefer to tackle the problem of ‘the underachievers’; we risk a so-called bonus-blindness —aka educators will only perform tasks which induces a bonus; and then there’s the heightened risk of fraud.

The truth about financial incentives: they don’t work

Wawoe isn’t alone in his thinking. Career analyst Dan Pink has also examined what truly motivates us. In his witty TED Talk Pink uses the ‘candle problem’ to illustrate how bonuses work when the task at hand is mechanical, straightforward and has a clear set of (simple) rules.


But the moment we’re confronted with more layered, cognitive and complex problems, financial incentives numb us and even fail to motivate us. It’s an alarming conclusive mismatch that the free-market conveniently chooses to ignore. Including our current policy makers.

Instead of bonuses, Pink urges us to concentrate on more intrinsic values like autonomy, mastery and purpose. Provided an organisation rewards her co-workers with fair salaries. Of course. Pink claims that contrary to bonuses, intrinsic values have time-and-time again proven to be beneficial when dealing with creativity, innovation and complex problem solving.

Here’s what we should do

What I fear is that the proposed reform initiatives will leave our Dutch educational system either barren or in shambles. Chances are that by then, the decision makers; alike the banking sector, will just walk away from the mess they’ve created and not feel an inch of responsibility.

In fact, the problem is dropped in the lap of those dealing with these policies. It’s a burden I believe educators should consider seriously. I’ll start by throwing in my two cents. Here’s what I think we should do:

  1. Complex and multi-layered. Realise that education is a responsible and a complex multi-layered field. Financial incentives will only work counterproductive.
  2. Acknowledgement. Acknowledge Educators and the importance of their work. Give them a fair pay –instead of wasting money on bonuses and short-term thinking solutions.
  3. Underachievers. Actually tackle the problem of underachievers. Why do some educators refuse to go the full distance? What’s holding them back? And if you can’t fix it; fire them. Decision makers should be concentrating on making it easier to lay off slackers and not on bonuses as incentives.
  4. Space and time. Trust your educators. Give them (creative) space to perform well. Don’t stifle them with procedures and policies. But moreover give them time. With all the talk of life-long learning, you’d think we’d know by now that education is a long-term process. Stop changing horses in mid-stream.
  5. Not static or one-way. True learning is neither static or a one-way street. Make it possible for educators to learn and grow themselves. Don’t create a competitive mistake-phobic culture. That’s not a receptive learning environment.

Now you decide for yourself: What’s your take on financial incentives in Education?

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