Learning for Life, not for Rewards

The book that has had the most effect on me in in my life, in terms of how I look at the world, is a piece of non-fiction called Next of Kin by Roger Fouts. Fouts was a research assistant on the very first project teaching a chimp American Sign Language (“Project Washoe”). The book taught me many things: the process of language acquisition, the origins of human language, the profound similarity between humans and chimps and the vanity of thinking we are so different from other animals. What Fouts learnt from researching chimps was that we should not be researching chimps. (He went on to found a sanctuary for laboratory chimps.)

There are so many aspects of the chimps’ behaviour that give us insight into human behaviour that I could not possibly mention them all here. However, I will share one right now, which has been playing on my mind as I think about how I teach my children. It is a passage where Fouts describes the process of learning. He states that conditioning, which is often used to “teach” research animals to behave a certain way, is entirely contrary to learning. A system of reward and punishment actually hinders a subject’s natural capacity and curiosity to learn. Fouts quotes Desmond Morris when he observed chimps doing freehand drawings. Chimps love to draw, much as young children do. Initially the chimps would take a long time over each drawing, carefully making the desired lines on the page. But once the researchers started to give a reward each time the chimp did a drawing, hoping to increase the frequency of the activity, an interesting thing happened: the quality of what each chimp produced went markedly down. Morris says

 Any old scribble would do and then it [the chimp] would immediately hold out its hand for the reward. The careful attention the animal had paid previously …was gone, and the worst kind of commercial art was born!

When I read this I was immediately struck by what that meant in terms of teaching my children. Were the sticker charts I sometimes get out for them in fact holding them back?

I have been teaching my children to read and write for the last 18 months while living abroad. Initially, I would do activities with them to teach them a particular sound, and I would give them a sticker for each activity they did. They had a sticker chart to mark their progress, with the promise of a little gift or treat once the chart was completed. This worked quite well, although I noticed they were much keener to do the work when their chart was very near completion. All of a sudden they wanted to read three books in a row, or do multiple writing activities to reach the goal. Of course that’s not really what I wanted, as reading three books in a row without much care isn’t as useful as one carefully read book a day for three days. I also noticed that once a new sticker chart was started, they were much less interested in doing the work, as the promised treat seemed a long way off.

This isn’t really surprising behaviour, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the sticker chart itself might be a stumbling block to their learning. Without realising it, I had made the achievement of stickers appear more desirable than the achievement of being able to read a book. I started to think about the fact that if I wanted them to do reading and writing, they needed to want to do it too. So I had to make the activity attractive enough that to capture their interest and curiosity. As Fouts says,

Learning cannot be controlled; it is out of control by design. Learning emerges spontaneously, it proceeds in an individualistic and unpredictable way, and it achieves its goal in its own good time.

This is wonderful in theory, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I just feel out of ideas, and often they would probably rather play freely than do what I suggest. And sometimes you just need your children to learn what you are teaching. But the times when I have been a little more imaginative, the children have been much more engaged and able to concentrate for longer. I also avoid giving them a sticker for an activity that they have enjoyed, so that they don’t get the idea that what they just did was in fact work!

All this also made me question the use of sticker charts, or regular rewards, in general. I’ve watched Super Nanny – I’ve seen the results of a well-used sticker chart. But is it possible that we are made to believe that they are the only way to get our children to behave or do what we want? Should we be conditioning our children so readily? Maybe we need to take more effort to make the behaviour or activity an end in itself. The problem with giving consistent rewards for a given behaviour is that once you take away the reward, the behaviour may disappear also. I don’t want my children to stop reading because I don’t give them a sticker after each book. I want them to pick up the book because they enjoy reading. In the same way, I don’t want my children to stop eating their vegetables because they aren’t getting a sticker for it; I want them to eat vegetables because they understand it’s good for them. If conditioning inhibits natural learning, I think it also inhibits natural good habits.

I’m certainly not suggesting we should not reward children for doing something good. I think encouragement and praise are very important for children and adults alike. I just think that when we give an automatic reward consistently each time a child does something we want, we are teaching he or she the value of rewards, rather than the intrinsic value of the behaviour. There are always times when the benefit of what we want our children to do is much more obvious to us than to them, and I am not opposed to a good dose of bribery in those cases. And sometimes I find that the use of rewards is the only way to promote certain behaviours that I have failed to cajole, explain or rant into being. But before I reach out for the trusty sticker chart again, I will try to see what I can do to turn something that I want my children to do into something that they want to do for themselves.

 

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