Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Motivates Children to Learn?

When my grandchildren were visiting just after Christmas they were playing with some old stamps and an inkpad. I noticed that they were using an old set of reward stamps that I had purchased in my first year of Primary school teaching. I stopped using them the year I bought them - 1972!  But they had survived.  I was a little horrified to see the stamps with words like "Messy", "You Did Not Listen", "Do this Over", "Incomplete" and a token "Good" (again see the illustration). I know why I bought them.  As a young inexperienced teacher in a difficult school in Sydney I grasped at old ideas; how I was taught, extrinsic rewards and sometimes punishment. I can also recall why I stopped using them. I was wandering around the room one day at the end of a lesson checking books and one of my Grade 4 students said: "Sir, can I have a the 'Do this over' one, it's the only one I haven't got yet?" I realised that they liked the pictures and thought little about the words.

I was reminded again today of the stamps when a new batch of stickers came free as an insert in magazine to which I subscribe. They are mostly adhesive stickers these days and as you'd expect they are much more positive, no hint of anything negative. As well, in this much more market savvy age. The set is promoting Sally Rippin's popular Billie B. Brown book series.  As an aside, this is a level of commercialism that wouldn't have been possible in 1972.  I can certainly see kids collecting these stickers and feeling good about it. But do these stickers (and my old set of stamps) do anything useful to motivate children to learn? And what about other reward systems that are used in schools regularly; do they motivate children to learn? To answer these question I need to say something about 'motivation',  'competition' and 'punishment'.

What is motivation?

The psychologist will tell you that motivation refers to the psychological forces that lead us to act to achieve a desired goal. It can also refer to the reason for our actions that give purpose and direction to our behaviour.  Psychologists always distinguish between two major categories in our reasons for action. First, forces that come from inside the individual (e.g. interest, challenge, intense need to know something, desire to complete a task, feelings of self-worth etc) - Intrinsic Motivation. Second, forces that are external to the learner that can offer reward and pleasure (e.g. prizes, money, good grades etc) - Extrinsic Motivation.

What is Competition?

Competition is essentially when two people contest the same thing. Two runners try to reach the finish line first, thirty people scurry to get the last 20 tickets to a concert, two families try to get the best table in the park, children strive to be the best speller in the class. Competition can motivate, but there is great debate about its potential to lead to intrinsic motivation (not just extrinsic motivation).

What is Punishment?

Punishment is the use of some stimuli to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviour. It can involve physical stimuli (e.g. a smack, confinement etc) or non-physical action (e.g. the removal of privileges, verbal chastisement etc). It is seen as effective if the punishment leads us to want to avoid a behaviour or action in the future (e.g. the child stays on task, rather than off it).  Research also suggests that for it to be effective it needs to happen just after the behaviour, and it is more effective if it is severe and occurs every time the behaviour occurs.

So what does this all mean for kids and learning?

1. Be careful with extrinsic motivation - At the very least, what we know about motivation should lead us to think carefully about the use of any form or extrinsic reward to motivate children. The stamps I used I can confidently say had little impact on the children I taught. Perhaps over time if your child gets enough super effort awards at school, they will feel good about themselves. But not if the rewards have little relationship to 'real' achievement or 'real' change in behaviour that they recognise as having its own rewards.  We need to recognise that extrinsic motivation might change behaviour for a time, but it doesn't necessarily lead to any sustained benefit. In fact, some argue that it does little for intrinsic motivation.

2. Ensure that ultimately it is intrinsic motivation that we should seek for our children - When extrinsic rewards are removed will they continue to want to learn, explore new ideas, sustain their efforts in any area of life?

3. Understand that punishment has a place in parenting and teaching but it is limited - For a start, physical punishment is not an option for teachers, and is rarely an option for parents. Even physical strategies such as the 'naughty chair', detention and so on, only work long term when associated with a realisation on the child's part that their behaviour was unwise, wrong, inappropriate, selfish etc. It should also lead to the child seeing the benefits to them of different behaviour.

4. Understand that for every winner there is always at least one loser - Classrooms, in particular, are places that should not be driven just by competition. In any class, and family for that matter, there will be different children with different strengths and weaknesses.  If you promote competition you will need to link it to a very broad range of achievements. Our primary aim isn't just to make sure that everyone gets a super effort award, but to actually acknowledge varied areas of achievement and learning. You will need to ensure that you don't simply reward compliant behaviour but also acknowledge kindness, tenacity, creativity, problem solving, graciousness, service and so on.

5. Recognise that extrinsic motivation has a relationship to what and how you teach - As a young teacher I soon discovered that teaching spelling simply by drilling and memorising lists of words led inevitably to a Friday spelling test to judge success or failure on the list. The Friday test of separate isolated words matched the way I taught decontextualised spelling, not the ability to write well, or even spell well in context. If your child's school has a massive and complex system of award cards, or if you teach in a school like this, you should constantly consider what is rewarded or acknowledged and what this says about the things that are valued in the classroom.

Summing up

I want to stress that I'm not saying that competition is wrong and completely unhelpful. No, it can motivate us in many positive ways.  But there is a difference between an adult being self-motivated by a desire to compete and succeed and the way we impose competitive structures on young children. Children need to understand when competition is good, fun and satisfying - this is one of life's hard lessons. They need to learn how to win and lose gracefully, and how to deal with success and failure. Wanting to beat your brother at backyard cricket might be fun and drives lots of good physical activity, skill development etc, but the benefits are greater and more wide reaching when motivated by more than just wanting to beat him or her into submission. 

We need to think carefully about how we use extrinsic motivation, competition, reward and punishment at school and at home.  We also need to remember that each child is different (even in a family), that we all respond differently to extrinsic rewards, and that different things act as intrinsic motivators for all children.

"If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." Albert Einstein

"One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But... I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success."  Thomas A. Edison

Other posts

There are many other posts on this blog that deal with related issues in child learning (here)

A UNESCO document titled 'How Children Learn' can be downloaded free HERE

No comments: