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.