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Should Learning Be Rewarded With “Stuff”?

smartycard2.pngThere’s something really creepy about paying your kids to learn…or is there?

The New York Times recently ran an interesting piece on whether or not kids learn better when they’re given material incentives. Historically, educators have frowned on rewards. They want very much to believe that education, the pursuit of knowledge, is reward enough.

The concept of education as its own reward is starting to feel a bit dated in a world where everything is measured on the immediate return on investment. In an era when life is about accumulating stuff–coupons, trinkets, friends, and more–for many kids, it’s starting to look as if rewards for learning might do the trick. As parents, we give our kids everything from allowance money to toys/games/clothing as a way to reward their good behaviors. The hope is that these extrinsic rewards will become intrinsic as the kids grow older. Purists argue that kids are born explorers and their love of exploration translates to the love of learning, but let’s face it: Multiplication tables and fractions are not exploratory territory. They require route memorization tasks and most kids find this sort of learning far less compelling than just about anything else they could be doing.

As I ponder, I’m at a conference called DEMO 09 that showcases new products and start ups in the technology space. I just watched an exciting demo of a SmartyCard, an online learning world for kids ages 7-12 where they get rewards for learning. The creators of the system aren’t being subversive, either. The company’s slogan is YOU LEARN, YOU EARN.

smarty-card.pngThe content is mostly in the form of online quizzes with colorful graphics, simulations, and videos included. The content is grade-specific and compartmentalizes skills according to activities like “space” or “America” rather than the old “reading/math/science” classification.

As the child plays they earn points. The rewards are all virtual and they’re precisely the type of reward every 7-12 old covets: Club Penguin membership, iTunes music, WebKinz stuff, and more.

I’m loving the idea of virtual rewards for many reasons. First, kids learn to purchase their own virtual stuff–their currency is learning. Second, a virtual reward lets them personalize how they decide to spend. This makes them better consumers of all media. Finally, learning basic facts has never been scintillating stuff . Do you remember playing eraser tag in your classroom or any one of a number of other games to make memorization a bit more memorable? SmartyCards does the same thing, as did so much of what we’ve despairingly called edutainment.

I’m not advocating a Skinnerian education where material goods become the reason for learning. But kids’ work is schoolwork, and their job is to do it well. Everyone expects compensation for a job well done and that means both the knowledge that they’ve done good work and a little salary, too.

You go, SmartyCard. You learn. You earn.