On February 27th, 2018 we learned about

Misleading successes don’t derail kids’ long-term learning

Our brains love getting positive feedback, which can have its drawbacks. Parents and teachers grapple with finding the balance between rewarding kids for getting things “right” while also trying to show appreciation for the effort a kid put into getting their answer. The concern isn’t that kids need to be propped up emotionally, but that rewarding results may overemphasize products of process while also reducing any intrinsic satisfaction the kid had from doing a good job. If that weren’t enough to consider, researchers from the University of Cambridge raised another possible issue with rewarding results— what if kids are rewarded for the wrong result and end up “learning” something that wasn’t true in the first place?

Familiar physics

In the case of the Cambridge study, the kids were supposed to be learning about physics. Our earliest physics lessons usually start when we’re babies, repeated dropping a cup on the floor or just throwing toys around a room, and so the idea that kids might have some baseline understanding of how objects interact was quite reasonable. However, a baby that’s only paying attention to the result of their action might not be learning about the nuances of how the cup fell, or toy flew, which wouldn’t really prepare them to deal with unusual results in the future. Again, too much focus on the product of an activity might diminish the importance of the process.

The actual experiment involved four- to 11-year-olds, asking them to get a token floating in a narrow tube. As in Aesop’s fable of the crow and the pitcher, the tube has a small amount of water in the bottom, but the water level is too low for the token to be accessible. The test is then if kids will pick heavy or floating objects to drop into the tube in order to displace the water to raise the water level, and token, to the top. It’s something crows have actually figured out, but in this case researchers complicated the kids efforts by secretly breaking the physics involved.

Earlier experiences vs. recent rewards

The tubes were either set to secretly drain or fill, allowing the water level to seemingly “respond” incorrectly to the kids’ efforts. For instance, heavy objects that should have raised the water were made to have no effect when the water was secretly drained away at the same time. Buoyant objects that shouldn’t displace much water were made to have the opposite effect, as water was pumped into the tube as if those objects were helping. Essentially, their success was suddenly tied to bad information, giving researchers a way to see how much that result (and accompanying sticker rewards) would influence the kids’ thinking in the future.

After kids had been “trained” on misleading tubes, they were given a chance to repeat the test with a normal tube. Happily, researchers concerns about the power of reward were a little overstated, as kids seemed to greatly value their previous experience with real-world physics over their recent, misleading reward. Younger kids were thrown off by the fake physics a little more, but kids as young as seven seemed to already be reliant on their long-term experience with physics instead of simply recreating how they last earned a sticker.


My eight-year-old said: I’m proud of those seven-year-olds for getting it right!

My five-year-old said: Yay five-year-olds!

Source: Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools by University of Cambridge, Phys.org

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