Did you know that Sylvan Learning Centers offer prizes for doing well in their courses (or sessions, or whatever they call them)?   Kids accumulate points for getting high scores – which Sylvan calls ‘learning’- on assignments or tests and can then trade those point in for stuff.   Someone we know who went there for a time said some of the items you could get were pretty substantial.   Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that an iPod was among them.  (I just looked on line, and nowhere is there mention of Sylvan rewarding kids with stuff. Could it be unique to our local branch?  Could be, but I doubt it.)

Kumon rewards kids with stars.   It’s not an iPod, but hey,  maybe if you get enough stars Mom & Dad will buy you an iPod….

Because some (many?) parents do offer prizes as rewards for learning.

Now I have a question for you:

Would you work hard to get 100% on a test if you knew there was an iPod in it for you?  (or maybe an iPad?)

And here’s my next question:

Do you think getting a high score on a test in order to win a prize (and sometimes that prize includes a good grade or admittance to a ‘good’ school) is the same thing as learning?

I suppose it is a kind of learning; the kind you don’t remember a few months later.   The kind that prompts articles each fall about how we need longer school years so that kids don’t forget so much over the summer.

Wouldn’t it be better to learn something – really learn it – because it interests you?  Independent of whether or not anyone else thinks you should learn it?  Because really, when someone tells you that you should do something, how often do you do it?  Be honest.  Almost never, right?   If it’s not something you really want to do, you’re not doing it no matter how many ‘shoulds’ you hear.   Why do we think it is any different with kids and what they “need to know” (read: should know)?

Isn’t it easier to learn something when you use it a lot?   Theory is never as good as practice.   Therefore classroom abstracts can never match real world experience.   Which is why ‘learning’ for the reward of a grade or a prize is not the same as absorbing something out of a burning desire to know it and/or regularly use it in our lives.

You cannot force a desire to learn.  Offering rewards does not enhance, but rather diminishes the chances for real learning.    Rewards are just coercion in fancy clothes.

Force and coercion do not instill motivation or a passion for learning.  Unschoolers learn stuff because they want to; because it’s relevant to them and they need it.   The trick for parents is to realize that each kid is on their own timetable for learning.   Just like when they walked.  Just like when they talked.   They did it when it was right for them.   We have to trust that process – encourage, demonstrate and guide, but don’t demand or force.  Don’t coerce with the promise of toys or trinkets or money.

I’m not anti-reward, as long as the reward is not used as bait.   If my kid went out of their way to help a neighbor, or did something above and beyond what was expected just because they felt like it, then I might very well surprise them to a special dinner or a movie or something.    Which is more about appreciation and thanks than reward.

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