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.