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Reward Based Learning vs Meaningful Learning Experiences

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

I recently read a quote on Facebook that suggested that whilst autistic children might quite like getting rewards they don't help them to learn, crazy huh? You would be hard pushed to walk into an autism classroom without your eyes being assaulted by a cacophony of token boards and reward charts and your ears being gently numbed by a chorus of 'good job' and high fives but do they help children learn? I began to reflect on my own teaching experiences and the conclusion I have drawn is probably not. Now don't get me wrong I do believe that rewards can help shape up desirable behaviors such as sitting at a desk or waiting for a turn but behavior and learning are not the same thing. A behavior in the loosest sense is any action that we perform and if a behavior is rewarding we will likely do it again that is why having 'just one piece' of chocolate is rarely successful, we learn very quickly that eating chocolate is rewarding so we want to do it again. In the autism classroom you may see children performing all sorts of tricks to access their rewards but have they really learnt much more than 'chocolate tastes nice?' There are 2 main problems that I have come across working with reward based learning in education. Firstly there will be the children who show no real engagement with their learning. An example of this child's learning experience would be if you were to place 3 photos of animals on a desk and say 'find dog' they would randomly point at the pictures until by chance they come across the right picture and get the reward. This child does not much care which one the dog is, they just know if they keep pointing at things they will eventually get a reward. The second problem with reward based learning is the tendency for some children to learn things by rote. This is the child who is more motivated to find the 'right' answer quickly to gain the reward but who does not attach any meaning to what they have learnt. An example of this is the child who can count to 100 but would not be able to tell you they have 2 hands as they have not attached any meaning to what they have learnt. Autistic children are often very good at learning facts and figures but can struggle to attach meaning to what they have learnt and we must be careful not to fall into the trap of using teaching styles that will further enhance this problem. There is another autistic child who we have all met in the classroom. This is the child who doesn't seem to be really learning much at all, the don't seem to be able to match identical objects, they struggle to imitate actions and don't seem to recognize things represented in pictures and yet, give them an iPad and they suddenly show you all kinds of skills they have. They know how to turn it on, adjust the volume, scroll and navigate and can identify the symbol for their favorite app, so whats going on? This child is giving you very important information about the power of meaningful learning experiences. If we consider why most of us choose to go to work 5 days a week it is likely the reward of a salary is a big motivator and influences our behavior by making us more likely to get up and go to the office or classroom every day, however we also look for meaning in our work and you will likely find that you work harder and longer on tasks that feel meaningful for you when compared to tasks with little meaning attached to them. Learning requires effort, passive learners rarely learn as much as those who are actively engaged in the learning process and it is unlikely that we will be actively engaged in something that holds no meaning for us. Activities are normally experienced as meaningful for one of the following reasons, there is a purpose to what we are doing, there is a finished product at the end of what we are doing or we are interested and enjoying what we are doing. Autistic children will be motivated by the same things and can be more motivated to complete tasks and learn about things that interest them than their non autistic peers. It may sometimes be the case that the purpose of an activity will not be as apparent to an autistic child, this may be particularly so when the purpose is social or if the purpose is too far removed from the activity for example exercising for future good health or weight loss. If it is essential for a child to perform an activity for future health or well being that is experienced as purposeless such as exercising then a reward based system might help however in most other situations a meaningful activity will be a more powerful motivator to learning. To make learning meaningful you will need to consider what activities are purposeful and enjoyable for your learners, if a child enjoys cooking or gardening for example, consider how you can in cooperate aspects of math or literature into these activities, if your child likes art, use it to teach them about colors or shapes, you have a music fan? What a great opportunity to learn to follow instructions or use number to play a rhythm. The other great thing about meaningful learning opportunities is that they will often translate directly to vocational or leisure activities that will provide long term enrichment for the learner. So next time you are about to congratulate your autistic child for doing a 'good job' consider how you can adapt what you are doing so they can experience first hand what doing a good job feels like.

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