Easter Eggs and chocolate bunnies: reward in learning.

I engaged in that time honoured tradition yesterday of bribing a small child with chocolate to retain my status as ‘favourite uncle’. One of the joys when your friends start to have children is that you can become the irreverent influence on their upbringing, fuelling them up into a frenzy on special occasions with sugary sweets and toy soldiers. Being an occasional visitor means that your presence is (usually) greeted with joy, partly because they know you are likely to be a source of entertainment and possible pocket money and partly because you are highly unlikely to be a source of discipline and order. I revel in my status

In an attempt to bring an educational element to festivities, i tried to engage in a little test before handing over the swag. Deciding that a maths test was in order (being an activity where i was confident i could outwit an eight year old) we tried a series of sums, the reward on offer being the chocolate eggs.

Well, in the event, the excitement of imminent cocoa products outstripped the desire to do multiplication and we had to give us, as two small children literally bouncing off the walls in excitement proved to be too much and a severe distraction to the process of mathematics, but i remain convinced that the principle was sound.

Rewards for learning.

How much of our motivation to learn comes from possible or promised rewards at the end of it? Clearly our motivations to learn are different at different times, in different subject. It’s context dependent. I’m (still) learning to play guitar, but no longer in any serious belief that i will be touring South America next year. No, my attempts at learning the chord of B sharp are motivated more by an inner desire than any formal reward. But that’s not always the case.

I took a driving test because i had to. I didn’t do it by choice, it was simply that if i wanted the reward of driving a car whenever and wherever i like, then i had to go through the pain of a formal learning programme and assessment at the end of it.

Many people learn in their jobs each year in order to secure a promotion or to go up a pay grade. Reward can sometimes be explicit: if you pass this exam, you will earn this much more, or if you do this sum, you will get this Easter egg. At other times, the reward is internal: if you learn more about this subject, you will satisfy some of your desire to understand more about your place in the universe or your role in life. Differentiating between ‘internal’ or ‘external’ rewards is useful, or to put it another way, between ‘material’ rewards and ‘emotional’ ones.

Sometimes it’s enough to win or pass because you gain satisfaction, whilst at other times it’s for a fiscal reward or tangible prize.

Reward forms an intrinsic part of our motivation to learn, but the reward may not always lie where we think it does, or, to put it another way, we shouldn’t assume that other people are motivated by the same things that we are, or seek that same rewards that we do. I spoke to someone the other day who has learnt five languages just because they are good at learning languages and enjoy it. They don’t ever use these languages for work, or indeed even much for pleasure. It’s just the joy of learning them. As someone who struggled through long summers of French classes whilst staring wistfully out of the window, this is virtually incomprehensible, but there you go. It takes all sorts to make the world go around.

So think about where you seek rewards for learning, what those rewards are and what the balance is between emotional satisfaction and the sating of curiosity and the material rewards of money or position. What does this look like for us and what does it look like for other learners?

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Assessment, Education, Engagement, Learning, Motivation, Reward and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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