February 18, 2017

Sophie Miller

Incentivizing Learning

Topics: Learning Through Play


My mother says that I began reading overnight. One day, she recounts, I was begging her to read me Hop on Pop on repeat, a wish that she refused out of sheer exhaustion of the book’s lacking plotline. The next day, she found me alone in my room, reading Hop on Pop aloud to myself. At first she thought I had memorized the book – how hard could it be? But when she put a different, less well-loved story in front of me I could read that too. When presented with the options of either going without the story or figuring it out myself, reading all of a sudden came quickly and naturally to me.

Researching how we teach children to read, I came across many of these stories. Children who had difficulty learning to read suddenly got the hang of it in a matter of minutes or hours when presented with a reward that seemed worth their while. Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College, explains how “children learn to read when reading becomes, to them, a means to a valued end or ends.” Gray has collected stories from a series of parents, many of whom recount their children’s reticence to learn to read until reading proved useful to them. For some children, it was as simple as having no one around to read them the story with which they were currently enthralled. For others, specific activities, such as wanting to participate in theater or even make their own brownies when no parents were available to do so, provided the motivation for learning to read. Gray explains how for each of these children, once they understood the benefits that reading could give them, learning to read came easily.


Lev Vygotsky, an early psychologist known as “the Mozart of psychology,” theorized on and researched how -- and why -- children learn. He found that a key motivator in children’s educational experiences arose from social interactions, particularly with those who were older than them. While researching the effect of other people’s presence in a child’s learning, “Vygotsky observed that these abilities developed through social interactions with significant people in the child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults.” Gray’s research also leads him to believe that the presence of older children helps to motivate younger children in learning skills to “catch up.” By learning “socially through shared participation,” younger learners receive encouragement from older role models, who motivate them to work on picking up certain skills.

So how to apply this finding to the way that we teach kids reading and other skills? Experts, like these Harvard researchers, warn against introducing incentives into an educational environment. However, the incentives that they explored in their research were largely financial, and there are plenty of other ways to incentivize kids to work on skills in and out of the classroom. You can introduce an incentive “system,” attaching prizes or rewards to the completion of different tasks. More effective, however, is attaching an incentive that relates to the learning of the skill itself, so that children understand why they are learning that topic and use that understanding to motivate themselves further. For some children, following the plot of a story is enough to motivate them to learn reading. For other children, finding the core of what will interest them about certain skills may be more complex, but finding this core and linking the mastery of the skill to reaching that goal is key in incentivizing learning.


According to Vygotsky’s theory, the introduction of an older mentor or tutor should also help motivate children to learn different skills. Gray phrases this as encouraging “age-mixed learning.” In collecting his information on how children learn, he found that younger children, when placed in a setting with older children, proved more motivated to master reading when they saw that it would help them connect with the older kids. This finding aligns with Vygotsky’s belief that “social interaction not only helps children remember, it may even be the key to memory formation.” And studies have found that student tutors benefit from tutoring programs as well. Researcher Jiska Cohen found that processing material from an educators’ standpoint “facilitates long-term retention, as well as aiding in the formation of a more comprehensive and integrated understanding” of the topics. So introducing an older tutor into the mix can increase the speed at which younger learners feel motivated to master skills while helping the older student to synthesize foundational information.

Creating incentives for children to learn, then, is more than just a system of bribery. Incentives, when used correctly, can help teachers to personalize lessons to students who struggle with developing certain skills. In turn, this personalization can help students to fully understand the benefits of learning certain skills. Additionally, incorporating age-mixed learning into your curriculum can incentivize students of both age groups, providing benchmarks for younger students and a chance for older students to solidify their understanding of basic topics. By introducing incentives, particularly social incentives, for young children on basic skills like reading and simple math, you can help create excitement about the things they are learning, so they can ignite their minds.

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