In a very well-written article for Moultrie News, Jody Stallings addresses the topic of positive reinforcement as an educational tool. His first point is that while positive reinforcement does seem to have benefits, it has stark limits.
His central claims about what those limits are seem to be as follows:
- Positive reinforcement doesn’t work so well once children are older.
- Positive reinforcement requires us to constantly adapt to children’s changing desires.
- Positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away.
Given what I learned in my developmental psychology courses, I think there’s good evidence that claim #1 is largely correct. While positively reinforcing behavior you want people to keep doing will probably always work with some people, most of us have a moral sense that develops and changes as we get older, and we become more resistant to changing our behaviors without some very compelling reason that’s greater than an extrinsic reward.
I actually think that kind of moral development in which our motivations for behavior shift farther away from extrinsic rewards and become rooted in intrinsic rewards like a desire to be virtuous is a very good developmental path, and to that extent I am always happy to see that people no longer rely on extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement.
That said, I don’t think Stallings is correct to associate positive reinforcement solely with extrinsic rewards. When we gain the intrinsic rewards associated with becoming people of good moral character through practicing the virtues, that too is positive reinforcement. It’s just that the positive reinforcement relies upon our own motivations and principles rather than being founded on rewards we are given from others.
Claim #2, that using the positive reinforcement technique requires us to adapt to children’s changing desires, is also true. In fact, it seems trivially true. Of course teachers will need to adapt to the changing desires that accompany growth into adulthood. That has always been the case, whether some teachers acknowledged it or not.
Children will of course seek different kinds of approval from teachers based on their developmental path and their cultural and family environments. This only becomes a problem if positive reinforcement is being used as a panacea. If a teacher is trying to fix all a child’s behaviors with positive reinforcement, it takes a lot of time and resources and may well not be practical.
On the other hand, if positive reinforcement is used in conjunction with punishments for egregious behavior that harms others by teachers who have cultivated a relationship of honesty and trust with their students and can do both punishment and reward credibly, this does not become unhealthy.
Claim #3, that positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away, is at least partially true. Stallings provided an anecdote as an illustration of this claim, so I’ll provide an anecdote to illustrate its limits.
When I was a young child, my parents paid me a penny for every page of a book I had read. This is precisely the kind of positive reinforcement that Stallings believes doesn’t work after the extrinsic reward is taken away.
And yet, here I sit, not being paid to read any of the hundreds of books, thousands of educational magazine articles, or thousands of practical and personal blog posts I’ve read as an adult. It seems that the positive reinforcement never stopped working. What happened is simply that I found my own intrinsic motivations to continue the behavior and no compelling reason to stop it.
Stallings’ suggestion that we cultivate an ethos of living virtuously because it is a good unto itself is of course one way to inculcate this kind of development of intrinsic motivations, and it’s the one I happen to favor myself.
I think Stallings reasoned correctly from his premises in the article, but like many a philosopher examining claims, I’m worried that he got one of the definitions wrong and that it may have caused him to critique the target of his piece more harshly than was warranted.
I think the problem is less that we use positive reinforcement frequently, and more that some folks see it as a panacea or fail to help children find intrinsic motivations for good behaviors that lead to a healthy life.