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Thinking about learning and rewards

While reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), I came across an interesting observation regarding motivation to learn. Bain discussed a series of experiments where a person with an interest in either learning or doing something was provided a reward (referred to as an “extrinsic motivator”), which would later be taken.(32) The studies questioned whether an individuals desire to learn increased, decreased, or stayed the same once the motivator was removed. He then used the example of students interested in the causes of wars and how the rewards of grades and eventual graduation changed their interest in the subject.

The results showed that intrinsic curiosity decreased when the motivator was removed.(32) This leads me to question the whole rationale behind our current education system (no, this will not become a discussion about No Child Left Behind). I found myself asking, “Why do people go to college, or graduate school?”, and, “What, if any purpose do we as people, and especially children, see in compulsory education?” It would seem that taking the example in Bain to its extreme conclusion, but possibly logical one, that, except for the very young in preschool and early elementary grades, the only reason for them to go to school is not to become learned individuals, but to simply earn the extrinsic rewards of good grades, and a diploma, or degree, which will hopefully land them an even greater extrinsic reward of a lucrative job.

The question is, why send our children to school, or college? Of course, the biggest reason is to provide them the necessary skills to succeed in adult life. However, are there other ways that would prepare them as well for that life as compulsory education? Believe me, I am not saying we need to completely do away with schooling, as it does serve a vital function for an industrialized society, or really any society. What I am saying, though, is that we need to reconsider why we attend school. For youngsters, the answer is usually “because Mom and Dad say I have to go”, or because we as a society have agreed that it should be required. What about young adults in college, or graduate school?

Years ago, it seems as though college was about fielding your champions. Only the best and brightest, or those from well-connected, wealthy families, attended college. Now, even though studies show that only 25% hold a Bachelor’s degree (which is about 75,000,000 Americans) in the United States today, it sometimes appears that everyone has or needs to earn a degree. Consider that in 1940, roughly five percent of Americans held a college degree. Has earning a college degree become nothing more than a mere reward, a path to a job, rather than an expression of a desire to be learned? I sometimes think yes.

How can this change? Bain noted that the best teachers allowed students to have a great deal of choice in their education. Often, these instructors gave students many opportunities to improve their work and themselves as learners. Now, such freedom would be difficult to give children, but perhaps if young students are made to feel that learning is fun and not a laborious act, maybe lifelong learning can be fostered.

For higher education, a couple things should change to alter the motivating reasons for attending. First, a re-examination of educational requirements for various jobs must take place. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs that should not require a Bachelor’s degree to do them. Second, greater emphasis on trade schools and technical colleges, so that those who do not have a desire to be learned and well-rounded have options. Finally, not everyone has the ability to have a formal education. While they should have the opportunity to try, standards at traditional four-year colleges and universities should be strengthened to weed out those who, despite assistance, lack the ability.

Learning should not be about earning grades and degrees. It should be about expanding one’s knowledge and bettering one’s self inside. While it would take a long time, we should all work to make education and learning less about rewards and more about the fun of challenging ourselves to do better. This is why I am pursuing a Ph.D., so what is your motivation?

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