The relevance of reward-based conditioning in children’s education
In the 20th century, a new type of learning called “operant conditioning” was formulized based on the work of two psychologists: B.F. Skinner and Edward L. Thorndike. This new type of learning proposed that reinforcements and punishments could be used to influence one’s behavior patterns. Ever since, operant conditioning gained popularity thanks to its being rapidly effective. Yet, the pedagogical effectiveness of operant conditioning is questionable given its negative effects on children’s intrinsical motivation and their ability to judge which course of action to take. Moreover, the use of reinforcements, or rewards, can result in a deconceptualisation of success and reduce it to a concrete measurement of rewards received, possibly causing psychological distress.
Introducing external rewards for good conduct can in long term lead to a dependence on external approval. In such a case, one’s motivation to act is fueled by the existence of an external reward, conditioning it to an external motivating factor. Likewise, an individual depending solely on extrinsical motivation would not have a reason to act in the absence of those. This clearly undermines a major purpose of the education which is to bring up individuals who can stand on their own feet.
In addition, a child depending on rewards or punishments as a means to determine righteousness would have no instrument to judge a course of action he has not taken before, since no prior point of reference exists. If the child’s entire judgment is based on external stimuli, then the lack of those also means the lack of judgment. Surely the child can reason from his past experiences, but those deductions would ultimately need to be approved by the others to be considered true.
Moreover, operant conditioning can also introduce psychological challenges especially in a standardized education system. Children who get less rewards, or lower grades, than others start after a point to believe that they are worth less than them. Their loss of self-esteem provokes further loss of motivation and self-confidence. Needless to say, these children would be less productive than otherwise and thus contribute less to the society.
Conclusively, operant conditioning is not regarded highly in children’s education anymore given its contradicting the development of intrinsical devices which help children to determine what is right and to act accordingly by themselves. However, the standard education system in most countries is modeled upon operant conditioning. In that regard, there is an emergent need for a comprehensive education reform.