Monday, April 26, 2010


The whole theme of reward or cause-and-effect is exercising my mind lately. Mostly it just goes in circles.

I'm not about to disinter Pavlov, but I can't help feeling that we should be looking to reward desired behaviours in education, in the workplace and even in society in general.

Obviously, the nature of the reward would have to be made appropriate to the context. I can't see us giving a newly appointed manager a star for sharing his crayons with the person at the next desk.

Recently, my elder son asked me to intervene in a situation for him. He had lent a sum of money to his younger brother. It seems my younger son was going to repay this debt at £5/month, interest free. But that would take several months, by which time my elder son will have finished school and started his gap year in Australia. So he asked if I would give him the money, and let my younger son repay me at this rate.

I agreed, but I shouldn't have. The thing is, my elder son lent the money to his brother without establishing the terms of repayment first. This is not a very wise thing to do, and in taking over the debt, I have rewarded his poor choice. It isn't a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, so this would have been an ideal opportunity for a bit of tough love. A lesson to be learnt at no great cost.

I'm too much of a softie!

As I see it, the exam system also rewards the wrong behaviours. I know some kids who seem pretty dense, to be honest. They seem to know nothing about anything, and are utterly unable to hold a meaningful conversation about anything of substance. And yet they are in the top set for all their subjects at school, raking in the A grades. If education is preparation for life, the behaviours that should be rewarded are surely things like the ability to find information on a given subject, establish whether information is valid/reliable, apply information to a situation that does not exactly mirror a case study, work as a team, delegate responsibility, meet a deadline, be innovative with limited resources, overcome obstacles. You know... real life stuff.

We're a long way from that, I reckon. Probably mainly because we're a long way from knowing how to assess those skills!

I used to share a house with a few long distance truck drivers when I was a student. These guys were paid a certain fee to haul a load from point A to point B. They would get a bonus for doing it extra quickly. Not only that, but if they managed to shave a day off the delivery time, that gave them an extra day to start earning on the next project. So any time saved gained double rewards, financially speaking. So these guys would drive for 24 hours at a stretch, overdosing on caffeine in attempt to stay awake. There is no doubt that they constituted a hazard to other road users and themselves. In fact, I heard a couple of years back that one of them had been killed in an accident.

But the system was such that they were rewarded for this behaviour.

I have heard many tales of teenage girls in the UK, fed up with their parents restrictive rules, deliberately becoming pregnant in order to qualify for additional benefit payments and perhaps get a council flat. I'm not pretending to know a better way to respond in this situation, but it strikes me that this is another example of rewarding the wrong behaviour.

Like I said, my mind has been going in circles on this subject. I'm not sure I have any constructive answers, but I guess a change to the education system wouldn't hurt!

1 comment:

Views from Malmesbury said...

Rewarding wrong behaviour seems rife in the UK these days, not just in education but education seems an excellent place to start tackling the problem. In the long term it would produce people who could contribute more to society and perhaos enable them to get more out of life for themselves. Like you, I've no idea what changes can be made or how they could be implemented, but I certainly hope there're better brains than mine out there that that do know and have the ability to see it through.