Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Types of Answers In Education

Just playin' around with an idea here. More to follow.

Behavior that is rewarded will tend to be repeated. Behavior that is punished will tend to extinguish. Simple enough to understand, and pretty readily demonstrated. Its simplicity tends to break down in real-world situations, which are complex and dynamic. What we thought of as a punishment, such as smacking someone, turns out in some cases to be a reward: attention. When we reward a child for good grades, we might be unwittingly rewarding the cheating they did to get there. Real life is messy, but the principle still holds.

The actions that children engage in – what are the rewards they are receiving for various activities? Children who play video/computer games receive tiny but instantaneous rewards, which they can string together into larger rewards, especially mastery. Computer games reward focused attention, reflexes, fine motor coordination, keyboarding, instant memory retrieval, pattern recognition, and more. Experimentation and recombination are rewarded. A variety of skills useful in various adult contexts. Other important skills are rarely used.

Text-messaging, cell phones, VOIP and IM, email and MySpace teach the encoding and decoding of small bits of information into social meaning. They reward availability, quick response, and social flexibility as well as the fine-motor skills that most technology uses nowadays.

Other computer uses reward other skills. My sons have the first few letters of dozens of url’s memorized, so that they can look up when movies are playing or what the weather will be from any computer, even if it doesn’t have the bookmarks from home.

What a child learns from athletics varies enormously. We hope we are teaching both individual striving and cooperation, both independent action and respect for authority, both intensity and self-control. Realistic self-assessment, resiliency, grace under pressure, and strategy are lessons we hope our children learn over time. But we also know that sports can teach intimidation, humiliation and futility, selfishness, and scapegoating. A child ready to learn initiative may have a coach who does not allow it, and a child who should learn to stop blaming others may end up on a team where her good actions are, in fact, swallowed up in the mistakes of others. We don’t always teach what we hope to.

What was rewarded in our own childhood learning, and what was unrewarded or punished? My own experience was rather typical for children of a certain bent, I think. I read voraciously, which became its own reward. I wanted new information, any information, so cereal boxes, matchbooks, magazine ads, and road signs were as good a target as classic literature or good non-fiction. Better, in fact, because speed was of the essence. No poetry or elegance of expression mattered much. I wanted information, charts, plot, or dialogue. Quick-hitters for stimulation. An information-addicted brain, searching relentlessly for a fix, quality not important.

Does the type of reward for learning in children and young adults affect religious, political, and cultural values?

I have a suspicion we are doing something very, very wrong here.


Steve Burri said...

This is a very interesting topic, particularly for parents.

There is much pressure for parents in this age to be perfect parents. This involves providing for 'a better life than they had' and insuring that the children have high self-esteem.

The tendency is to shield children from struggling and suffering through failure and learning patience before earning success.

As our culture increases in secularization, relativization, and post-modernization, effective child rearing will continue to decline.

"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of you homes and on your gates." (Deut. 6:5-9, NIV)

katje said...

I believe it must, and in a variety of ways. One of the things I often see among children (at least those in my area) is the concept of the instant reward. This reward is inevitably in the form of something material. And as is the way among children, there is the inevitable one-upsmanship that fuels the ongoing drive for stuff. Seldom do you see a child working to earn money to get something they want. Or saving up. And VERY seldom is the reward what the child REALLY wants, which is the parent's affection and attention (parent usually being busy on phone or blackberry). Increasingly, money is being used to replace attention, as if buying your child a Pretty Princess Make-up Kit, or a Super Battle Robot Transforming Battle Arena Complete with Realistic Sound Effects can make up for even 10 minutes of your attention and real interest in your child's life.

Another thing I see is parents protecting their children from the consequences of their actions. Say a child, by accident, knocks another child to the ground. Does the parent of the inadvertent offender teach their child concern for others by encouraging him/her to go over to the child and express concern, help the child get to his/her feet, apologize for the accident and express remorse? Very, very rarely. And woe betide the parent of the victim who looks for any of the above, because the offender's parents will take it as a personal insult, and then the fight is on.

The commercial aspect of our culture gives no us no help. Instead it emphasizes eternal youth (no sense of responsibility) and instant gratification (no striving toward goals). "Everything, and NOW!" is the cry. Here, in our Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy, it's darned near impossible to find a babysitter, or a kid to mow the lawn and do odd jobs. Work is very passe' now. I do realize that this does not describe all of America, but pop culture is insidious, pervading every small town and hamlet, and it's inescapable.

When I was a kid, "growing up" was something to look forward to. It was when you would finally take your place in the world as an equal. When you would finally assume your rights and shoulder your responsibilities as a full citizen in society. Many kids still believe this, because many parents still teach their children about this aspect of growing up (does anyone else ever use the term "civic duty" anymore?). It's precisely that concept that made our country so great - the idea that each one of us is bigger than the skin that contains us, the idea that it's our job to do our part and help look out for the little guy, and the idea that we are responsible for making sure our society works.

When those teachings are combined with the little lessons kids learn in simple things like sports or video games, or reading, or play, then you have something that helps build children up. But when parents abdicate their responsibilities (or put them onto the state, or the schools or whomever else) then we are in trouble, because we have kids who don't understand the idea that there is anything outside of their own skins/thoughts and desires. And even if the kids are basically decent kids, it will be difficult for them because they will have no mental framework to help them cope with this leap in concept.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Preach it, sister! Music to my ears.

BTW on finding a babysitter, one trick is to scope out the ones you think appropriate with possible availability, at church or some respectable function, and insinuate your children into his/her company. Praise any interaction and fuss about how good they are with your children. Simple, devious, even cheesy, but you'd be surprised how often it works.

Similar strategies work with your own children. I won't elaborate, because my older two read this blog occasionally, and they are not above telling the younger two what manipulations to be careful of.

Old Wacky Hermit said...

I wish I had a window into the head of my six year old boy. I have a horrible sneaking suspicion that everything I do has the exact opposite effect of what I intend.

GraniteDad said...

Katje said: as if buying your child a Pretty Princess Make-up Kit, or a Super Battle Robot Transforming Battle Arena Complete with Realistic Sound Effects can make up for even 10 minutes of your attention and real interest in your child's life.

I don't know- that Super Battle Robot Transforming Battle Arena Complete with Realistic Sound Effects sounds a lot better than 10 minutes with AVI. That's a hard decision to make.

Erin said...

We were just discussing a similar concept in my Ed Psych class. Although, I would like to point out that punishment will suppress a response but not necessarily remove it. As soon as the threat of punishment is removed, the behavior will return.

As a teacher, I see a lot of parents who have missed this concept. Many will (as Steve said) avoid punishment to be the "good guy" or friend, rather than the parent and example of authority. Those who do see the need for structure will often use punishment to deal with the problem. Teachers fall easily into this habit too. After all, if little Timmy is talking and goofing off in class, isn't it easiest to just stop teaching and say, "Timmy, stop interrupting my class," and then continue on with teaching once he has stopped?

I'm not saying that parents in general don't know how to raise children these days; I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert on the subject. But the truth is, it's not just the kids that have gotten lazy in looking for instant reinforcement. Just as students are drawn to video games, as adults we are drawn to punishment because it is the quick fix. It takes a great deal more work to be consistently rewarding good behavior in my classroom (both to those who serve as an example and the baby steps I see in my "problem kids") than it does to offer a quick punishment. And worse, I'm receiving positive reinforcement for my actions because my students do stop talking if I call them out on it. But I know that all that it's taught them is to not get caught. They will only not talk when they know I'm watching/listening. The concept of respect and obedience was not learned.

So in answer to AVI's final question, I'd say yes, and we're the ones who are teaching it to them.