There’s been so much conversation lately, on this blog and others, debating the use and value of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (or reinforcers) in the classroom. But what Matt brilliantly pointed out here was that we have only been discussing positive consequences:
“Setting aside whether or not the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation distinction is valid, another question comes up — why is it that we characterize programmed positive reinforcement as artificial and prone to undermine intrinsic motivation but the myriad of programmed negative reinforcement contingencies, punishment contingencies, and forms of mildly aversive control we utilize are not also characterized as artificial and thus undermining ‘intrinsic motivation’?”
Isn’t that fascinating? I just hadn’t thought about it before, but Matt’s right. The only discussions that I’ve heard criticizing arranged (i.e., “artificial”) consequences focus on things that kids earn, such as stickers, points, praise, etc. But what about the arranged consequences that are aversive? Consequences that are intended either to decrease a behavior (i.e., punishers) or to increase a behavior by allowing kids to avoid something undesired (i.e., negative reinforcers). How do we consider those in this context?
I’ve just started thinking about this myself, so I don’t have an answer to this. I think it’s safe to say that just because motivation is intrinsic (i.e., naturally occurring and not arranged) doesn’t mean it’s desirable. I hate to think about a kid working hard just to avoid feeling stupid; but at the same time I recognize that this is the flip side of the coin to kids working hard to feel smart. In fact, there’s really no way to separate the two, is there?
But can we make the argument about aversives that is the corollary to the argument about positives? Does an arranged aversive consequence undermine a “natural” aversive consequence? Let’s take an example: The current argument is that if a student earns points for reading a book that the points undermine the student’s feeling smart for reading the book successfully. Does it follow that if a student LOSES points for not reading a book that this point loss undermines the effectiveness of the student feeling stupid for not being able to read?
I think many would suggest that it’s moot because we don’t want to be using aversives in the first place. But again, I’ll suggest that the feeling smart/feeling stupid dyad (as just one example) is inseparable.
So here’s the question for us to tangle with: If a student gets a bad grade from a teacher, does that make the student feel any less stupid? And is that bad? Is it good?
You can follow Matt Welch on twitter @welchmj. The image that appears here originally appeared at http://nspt4kids.com/parenting/the-difference-between-positive-and-negative-reinforcement/