Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Tackling the problem of extrinsic motivation in childhood learning

In schools children are provided with external motivation for learning what they are supposed to be learning. This extrinsic motivation can take two forms; reward for doing what is expected and punishment for failing to abide by what the teacher requires. In recent years, punishment has fallen out of favour as a means of motivating children. They are no longer beaten for forgetting their games kit or not remembering their Latin verbs; the worst a child can expect these days is a frown or a detention. Rewards though are still going strong, indeed stronger than ever. Schoolchildren receive certificates for getting to school on time, doing their homework and even not disrupting lessons. In addition to these regular rewards, teachers are always on the lookout for anything else for which they can praise a child, even saying 'Good sitting, Mary' to a child who hasn't jumped up out of her seat for five minutes. There are also vouchers, DVDs to watch and end of term treats.

There can be a problem with the constant use of positive reinforcements of this kind. Some home educating parents disapprove of this approach as a matter of principle, feeling that the child should learn for the intrinsic pleasure of learning, rather than because he wishes to be praised or receive a smile or certificate. Some research suggests that they are right to be cautious about using rewards for learning in this way. The problem is that a child can become dependent upon praise and encouragement and if it stops, then so does his motivation to learn. This could obviously be a bad thing in higher education. Imagine a seventeen year-old college student who became disaffected because he was not constantly being told what a good boy he was being by settling down quietly and getting on with his work! This actually happens and some of the dropouts from FE colleges are children find it hard making the transition from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation for academic work.

Quite a bit of work has been done in the USA on this subject. In one experiment, children were given access to drawing materials and left to their own devices. At the end of the session, one group received certificates saying what good artists they were. Another group did not. At follow up sessions of free drawing, when other activities were also on offer, it was found that those who had been rewarded in this way for drawing were less inclined to choose to draw for the fun of it than were the children whose drawing had not been rewarded. It seemed that rewarding the activity had somehow taken the fun out of it. There have been many similar experiments. The general finding is that children soon become almost addicted to little rewards of this sort and that when they are withdrawn, the children will not undertake the activities purely for the sake of it. They have been robbed of their intrinsic motivation to undertake drawing or whatever other activity is involved.

There is no need to abandon this method of encouraging children entirely though. It just needs a little planning and a bit of extra thought. Part of the problem is that many teachers and parents are over lavish with their use of praise and encouragement. Children receive it for the slightest thing; every piece of work is 'great', 'well done', 'very good' and so on. Children become uneasy and anxious if something they do is not praised! The answer lies in the mechanism of intermittent reinforcement. If I might be permitted another anecdote about a piece of American research, then we can see how this works. Some work done with gamblers is interesting. A large group was divided into three. One lot played fruit machines which were rigged to pay out every time, another group had machines which never paid out, while a third had machines that paid out randomly some of the time. Here is what happened. Those playing the machines which never paid out, soon cottoned on and stopped playing. Those on the fruit machines which always paid out carried on playing until the things were secretly disabled and stopped paying out. Soon after this happened, those playing them lost interest and gave up. When the machines which only paid out some of the time were similarly disabled, it made no difference at all. Those playing them carried on. They knew that there had been runs like this before and they stuck at it in the hope that they would win again.

We can use this to plan a strategy for the reinforcement of our children's desire to learn and achieve. if the rewards are constant, then just as with the fruit machines which always pay out, ending them will be very noticeable and can discourage a child from continuing with an activity. If the reinforcements are irregular and used sparingly though, the child will work harder and longer in order to obtain them. As they grow older, the rewards can be gradually faded out until only the occasional smile or word of praise is necessary to motivate. This has proved very effective with teenagers and even college students. In other words, where rewards for academic achievement are concerned, less is definitely more.

The constant drip of rewards and praise becomes simply a background after a while and is thus devalued. It becomes counter-productive. TS Eliot is his later years revealed that he had never forgiven his mother for over praising a poem he wrote when he was a child. Children may become addicted to praise and rewards, but they also recognise when they are handed out routinely and are insincere.

Of course this does not touch upon the ethical considerations of manipulating children and young people in this way. Quite a few home educating parents object on principle to this kind of thing and feel that the child's motivation to learn and study should come from within. For the rest of us though, it is helpful to know the most effective way of delivering the encouragement which will guide a child in the direction of educational success. For us, praise and rewards used sparingly and at increasingly irregular intervals as the child grows older are the key to success in this strategy.


  1. no we need more rewards for our children not less!

  2. Peter and Carol,

    Why do your children need more rewards?

    Mrs Anon

  3. Why not Mrs Anon? We always found it helps to get extra rewards or work towards one such as the new lap top Peter wants! have you seen the price a good lap top costs?

  4. I think that over praising and endless prizes are often used as a short cut to compliance - bribery basically. Sometimes we all respond to a bit of bribery but I wouldn't want to put that at the heart of my life with my children. If they are going to work hard for something then I would far rather that they did it for the sake of the thing. If that thing is enjoyable or useful for them then they will recognise that fact all the better if we don't lard it all over with sweeties and fake smiles.

    That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate my children's efforts - I do - but I don't want to muddy the waters when it comes to their ability to recognise their own desires. As a child I spent much of my time at school working just for the stars and the ticks. I lost the fun of the things that school did not reward. I stopped trying in the subjects where I did not 'do well'.

  5. Allie says-I stopped trying in the subjects where I did not 'do well'.

    Which is what most people do humans need to be rewarded otherwise we tend to be very lazy!

  6. The slot machine analogy only really works if you expect the child to primarily work for reward as the players of slot machines are. Slot machine players play because they might have the excitement of maybe winning, not because they enjoy pulling a leaver and watching the pictures spin. Do you really want children to work because they might gain praise, or would you prefer they worked because they enjoy it?

    If the slot machine players really enjoyed watching the pictures spin and trying to match picture for the sake of it and didn't care about the money you might have a relevant analogy. But this does assume that you want your child to learn and study for enjoyment rather than because you want them to learn and study. I'm not convinced that the drawing study would have had a different result if the 'prize' was intermittent.

  7. "Which is what most people do humans need to be rewarded otherwise we tend to be very lazy! "

    Only when you have to do things you don't enjoy in my experience. Do you want your child to take a job just because it has a high salary, or do you want them to take a (possibly lower paying) job they really enjoy? Both have benefits, so there's no automatic choice. With the first option you can get work over with and enjoy you life outside work with all the money you've earned. Or you can enjoy your work more and possibly (though not invariably) have less money for out of work activities. The risk with the first option is that you end up dreading Monday mornings which is what triggered a change in direction for my other half.

  8. 'If the slot machine players really enjoyed watching the pictures spin and trying to match picture for the sake of it and didn't care about the money you might have a relevant analogy.'

    Quite a lot has been written on the subject of intermittant reinforcement; I mentioned the slot machines because it was an easy and visual way of grasping the idea. Perhaps a better example would be the way in which children's tantrums are encouraged by their parents. A child who never gets his way as a result of the tantrum might eventually stop. One who receives what he is screaming for every fifth or tenth time that he has a tantrum is guaranteed to continue with this strategy. Much work has been done on this concept in education. Most of this has been in schools and colleges, but the conclusions are equally applicable to children being taught at home.

  9. Anonymous says-Do you want your child to take a job just because it has a high salary, or do you want them to take a (possibly lower paying) job they really enjoy?

    good question! my heart says take a lower paid job such as chess! but head says take very high paid job because you will need the money in England everything cost so much! look at how much it cost to live and get things repaired in a house? you may enjoy the high paying job? why does a high paying job be something you may dread?
    it all right when your younger doing job cos you like but wage is low but when your older you realize you need a lot money to have family/good house/car/eat well outings hoildays and dont forget repairs! and your need plenty of money to bring up child well to!

  10. "Much work has been done on this concept in education. Most of this has been in schools and colleges, but the conclusions are equally applicable to children being taught at home."

    Not sure that's true. Parents and teachers are very different. Research that appears to find something that works in homes often doesn't transfer to schools so I can imagine the reverse is true too.

  11. S24bibles? What's that then? Keep seeing it in the bar at the bottom.

  12. If a child learns only that which is interested in learning, then a system of praise, however generously or sparingly applied, is pretty much redundant. Feedback of course may be sought, or offered, but praise is a different kettle of fish and is likely to end up in all sorts of problems for the relationship between child and adult and for the relationship of child to learning:

    The kind of sparing reward system that is delineated in the post does indeed seem extremely arch and manipulative. I would imagine that something so calculating, so covertly manipulative, would be bound to muddy the relationship between adult and child as the child senses that he is being played to achieve the adult's agenda. He is likely to half suspect that he is powerless in the relationship between himself and adults and therefore, implicitly, in all probability, the world.

    He is liable to suspect that his own desires are simply not good enough, that it is impossible to act upon them, that he is somehow wrong for secretly wanting to do something different to that which would please the adults around him.

    He is liable to feel that credit for his work should not really be given to him...after all, he didn't freely choose it, and his parent takes the greatest pleasure from it, so really, what is it to do with him?

    Unconciously, he may worry that if he chooses not to please the adults around him, he will lose their support, be cut off, die...all sorts of unconcious, catastrophic events.

    He is liable to introject the message that the parent lives for the success of the child, that the child must be successful for the adult to be successful and happy.

    If he is very scared (unconciously, usually), he may adopt one of several pathological coping strategies. He may, for example develop pathological levels of narcissism. This would help as with the false inflating of the ego, he can calm his anxieties about his powerlessness and his vulnerabilities which spring from his dependency upon the sparing praise of the adults.

    All of this solved if only one can trust children to learn what they want to learn, given a rich environment with plenty of options and choices, and offers of good suggestions which can be freely turned down rather than covertly forced upon them.

    The children I know well are far more rational than most adults suspect. They know what it takes to survive in the real world, and they do sort it out for themselves. The adults on hand just have to have faith, genuinely respect their children for the individuals they are, carry on offering what seem like good theories, seeking common preferences, seeking creative ways of solving problems. These children get to find out how to govern their own lives and to explore the richness of their interests.

  13. Is there a campaign about narcissism going on at the moment? It seems to be the Word Du Jour in the online HE community.

    Mrs Anon

  14. 'Is there a campaign about narcissism going on at the moment? It seems to be the Word Du Jour in the online HE community.'

    Although both 'conflate' and 'statist' are still going strong.

  15. Narcissism is such a big problem for many that it isn't surprising that it should come up so often, I think. eg: a large number of privately schooled children from the 1970s and 80s suffered from it to some extent, along with anorexia, of course. Perhaps narcissism is such a big deal now because so many baby boomers who make the noise suffer or suffered from it.

    I don't know if pathological coping mechanisms have their mot du jour, but I don't remember so much overt self-harming (other than anorexia) in those days. Perhaps it will be self-harming we hear about in the next wave!

  16. 'I don't know if pathological coping mechanisms have their mot du jour, but I don't remember so much overt self-harming (other than anorexia) in those days.'

    I remember kids hacking up their arms with razor blades and so on. It wasn't as fashionable as it is now, so those that did this used to keep quiet about it. These days it is almost considered strange among some goth and emo types if you don't cut yourself from time to time!

  17. Yes, and perhaps a different motivation...more of a dare than a serious pathology.

    My main point is though that I go along with the theories that the relationship between parent and child has a massive effect on the mental health of the child which forms the basis from which he must struggle for the rest of his life.

    Parental behaviours that impact upon the child's mental health include: whether or not parent is attentive to needs of infant/child, whether parent respects child's autonomy or not, whether parent is truth-seeking with child or not.

    Broadly speaking:

    Attachment problems such as ambivalent attachment or avoidant attachment often result from early life experiences and from a parent being either inconsistently or more consistently insensitive and unresponsive to the infant's needs.

    These problems can be compounded or new problems can be created at a later stage with children who are manipulated, lied to, have their autonomy wrenched away from them. These problems can be made even more difficult for the child to sort through if they come packaged in a mix of apparently responsible behaviours by the adult/parent. One has to tread very, very carefully to avoid these issues.

    For some children, subtle parental manipulation will not appear to be a problem. It seems likely to me that what is happening here is that the child is so bought into the parental system that they do the adult's bidding as if it were their own entirely free choice and indeed they do believe this to be their own entire free choice which they have made on the basis of rational decision.

    One might think this the best solution to the parent/child raising problem, but is it really? Does this allow a child/person a true perspective on their own motivations, their own desires, their own ability to be entirely truth seeking with the rest of the world, and in turn, to allow other people their own space without the desire to control?

    The thing is, I do believe it IS worth respecting the child's autonomy and helping them pursue their own interests, because the adult can then be genuinely respectful of the child, rather than slightly condescending and controlling.

    Plus, it works. That child, given the chance to act on their interests, will find their way, is highly likely to become experts in their fields and will flourish.

  18. I say 'well done' when my daughter has done well and 'Excellent work' when she produces excellent work.
    The slot machine analogy only works when the reward given is random. I think, or rather hope, that rewards given by parents are earned.

    There are three points I'd like to make:
    1) Don't praise children for not doing something (I think the example given was 'well done for not jumping up), because there are lots of things they are not doing, might as well praise them for not falling asleep, dancing on the table or tearing around the room screaming 'kill the infidels'.
    2) Praise should be earned, earning something requires effort. If they do it under protest or have done it with no effort, for whatever reason, don't say well done, because they have not done well, they have done acceptable.
    3) Don't praise blindly; tell your child what he has done well, or what you are proud of. This doesn't have to sound like a prerecorded message -You have done well because you have done your work on fractions to a higher than average standard and have exerted some effort in doing so- you can be informal -Well done, look at how neat that is, I can see the effort you've put into that-.

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