Rewards vs. Cognitive Skills

In the Dan Pink video that I posted about a week ago, he said something that interested me: he said that rewards motivate mechanical skills, or skills that do not require much brain power or reasoning. Rewards actually hinder cognitive skills and make it harder to reason through a problem.

One of the things I love about kids is their ability to reason. You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old has the ability to reason very well, but they do. They don’t understand general, abstract statements, but they do understand that we perform an action for a specific reason. We clean up our toys so that we don’t trip on them and fall. We walk when we are inside so that we don’t trip and fall. We don’t jump on the bed because we might fall off and bump our heads!

If we can assign purpose to our actions, we become much better at assigning goals to ourselves. Our brains become better at reasoning through the steps that we need to take to reach a desired end because we have trained it to think that way. In contrast, doing something for a reward does not train our mind to look at the bigger picture or the higher goal. We can’t even reason through the steps we need to take to reach that reward, much less the goal, because we are so intently focused on the reward. It is almost like tunnel vision. The process of learning how to reason through steps or creating a goal is a practiced skill, though. We have to practice using the reasoning part of our mind in order for it to work well.

Learning cognitive skills is vital for a child of any age, but especially so for young children who are just learning about how the world works. If we simply tell them that we don’t want them to behave in a certain way and bribe them with rewards, then they don’t truly understand why we are asking them to behave a certain way. Understanding leads to a change in behavior, but at the same time it is important to remember that it takes 21-30 days to create a new habit. That means that it may take 21-30 days of a teacher explaining over and over the reasoning behind a certain action before the child makes a habit of behaving in the desired way. Even with the added benefit of an explanation that fuels the reasoning skills, the child may not stop behaving in the undesired way right away. It takes time and a lot of patience on the part of the teacher to actually teach children the correct social way to behave, and do it in a way that stimulates the cognitive skills of the child.

Experiences Instead of Academia?

I ran into this video the other day, and it brought to mind a few questions – especially since I had just finished reading the Ken Robinson book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. Watch it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.



The interesting thing about this video, to me, is that Stephen Tonti states that those with ADHD have a difference in cognition. I am not arguing that this is or is not the case. I think that he is probably correct, since he has been living with ADHD all of his life. But he talks about how being able to experience many different things in his life enabled him to find out at a younger age than most what he really enjoyed doing – his medium, his element. My point in posting this video is that, wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to ALL children, not just those with ADHD, to provide them with a wide range of experiences so that they can find out about themselves and what their mediums are?

I remember when I was in high school, during my sophomore and junior years, going through somewhat of a crisis because I did not know who I was. I was sheltered and didn’t have a lot of life experience to fall back on in terms of knowing how life worked and what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go when I got out of high school. It is one of the scariest feelings in the world, not knowing who you are or what you are going to do or how to go forward with your life. But all I had really known, as far as school went, was sitting at a desk writing papers. And I was good at that. But I knew that I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life. Life isn’t about sitting at a desk writing papers. It is about finding what you really love to do and doing it. It is about living. And I had no idea how to do that.

Luckily I found out, and I found my element. But it took me years. I was in my thirties before I found it and figured out who I was. That is a lot of time that I could have spent being me instead of figuring out me.

After watching this video, it occurred to me that maybe we should be offering all children experiences  that will enable them to figure out who they are and what they love, instead of just sitting them at a desk all day and expecting them to write papers. Stephen Tonti said that he was able to figure out what he loved to do simply because he had the opportunity to do many, many things with all of his energy. Shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity so that they can figure themselves out? Is it fair to expect children or young adults to spend so much time figuring that out? Especially with the cost of higher education these days – stories are told all the time about people who went to get a degree, found out that they didn’t even like doing what it was they got the degree for, and then going back to get a degree in what it was they really wanted to do. It really seems like a huge waste of time and money, when we could be offering children the chance to learn about real life so that they can figure all of this out before they get to that point.

Our education system is so focused on assessments and testing that we have lost sight of what children really need to be learning about: how to live. Yes, math, reading and writing are important when it comes to living a full life, but they are not everything. Offering children experiences could help them learn how to live full, productive lives with as little wasted time as possible.

And I wonder, now that I think about it…do I blog because I know nothing else besides reading and writing? Because that is all I learned earlier in life? I was good at it, remember? That is a depressing thought. I do more than that, though. I teach. I try to offer the children that I teach experiences because I know how beneficial it is to them. I know that they aren’t even worried about their element at the age of two, but at least I can give them as much experience at life as I can. Someone should.