Why Rewards Aren’t Good for Learning

kids and rewards

I want my kids to become peak learners. So, I have them play creative games, do cognitive activities, and practice foreign languages.

And to get them fully on board, I’ve been using the magical power of rewards. I started with cute little stickers, then I moved to a token system, but now I’m giving cold, hard cash.

Is it yielding results? You bet it is! They’re hooked on it. Skinner was dead on the money. Rewards act as powerful reinforcers; they do increase the occurrence of behaviors.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, external rewards undermine autonomy and intrinsic motivation, which are the holy grail of lifelong learning. According to the self-determination theory, in order to persist in their learning, people need to feel in control; they’re also better at what they choose to do. Rewards do the opposite, as they basically tell you that someone wants you to do something.

For example, many studies have shown that when you give people a reward for an activity at one time, later they’re less likely to choose that activity over other options, and when they do, they don’t persist for very long.

I can see this with my kids. When I stop paying, sorry, rewarding them for their efforts, they wonder what is going on, and they don’t instinctively turn to puzzles and memory games afterwards.

So what’s the solution?

First, don’t discard rewards altogether. Incentives like grades and competitions are wonderful motivators and provide great feedback. What you want to do is make sure the learning continues after the exam, contest or bonus is gone.

How do you do that?

Boost the learner’s autonomy and sense of competence. For example, focus on his/her own happiness of doing well instead of yours, reduce monitoring, and offer as much choice as possible (when, where and what task to do).

You want to train peak learners and really ignite their desire to learn? Give them passion, not rewards.

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