Some Learn in Order to Gain Competence, Others Learn to Gain Direct Rewards

(p. 184) Think about two different tennis pros giving you tennis lessons. The first pro says things like “good shot” and “good swing” all the time, to encourage you. The second one says “good swing” only when you make a good swing. If hearing “good swing” gives you a hedonic charge, then you will prefer the first instructor to the second (more gold stars, more encouragement). But if what gives you the charge is getting better at tennis, you will prefer the second instructor to the first. That’s because the second instructor’s feedback to you is much more informative than the first one’s. You’re not after “good swing” gold stars; you’re after a better tennis game. So feedback is essential to the development of a complex skill– whether it be empathy or a strong forehand. But he-(p. 185)donic feedback, in the form of incentives, is not. It may even be counterproductive, as in the case of instructor number one.
In schools, tests provide an extremely important source of feedback– of information– to the teacher and the student– about how things are going. Tests, or something like them, often offer the best way to diagnose problems and correct them. So tests as a source of information are good and important. The problem is that in addition to providing information, tests provide outcomes that students, and their parents, and their teachers, want and like– outcomes like approval, prizes, awards, honors, special privileges, and school ratings. The hedonic character of these outcomes is what gets students and teachers to orient their work to passing the tests, and to regard what they do in the classroom as merely instrumental, as merely a means to various rewarding ends.
There are important differences between children oriented to getting A’s and children oriented to learning from their mistakes. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her associates have spent thirty years studying the incentive systems that govern the learning of children throughout the educational process. They have uncovered two fundamentally different approaches to learning in kids that can often lead to profound differences in how well kids learn. One group of kids has what Dweck has called performance goals; the other group has what she has called mastery goals. Children with performance goals are primarily interested in gaining favorable judgments of their competence. They want to do well on tests. They want social approval. They want awards. Children with mastery goals are primarily interested in increasing their competence rather than in demonstrating it. They want to encounter things that they can’t do and to learn from their failures. As Dweck puts it, performance-oriented children want to prove their ability, while mastery-oriented children want to improve their ability. Children with performance goals avoid challenges. They prefer tasks that are well within the range of their ability. Children with mastery goals seek challenges. They prefer tasks that strain the limits of their ability. Children with performance goals respond to failure by giving up. Children (p. 186) with mastery goals respond to failure by working harder. Children with performance goals take failure as a sign of their inadequacy and come to view the tasks at which they fail with a mixture of anxiety, boredom, and anger. Children with mastery goals take failure as a sign that their efforts, and not they, are inadequate, and they often come to view the tasks at which they fail with the kind of relish that comes when you encounter a worthy challenge.

Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

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