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Dean Wittrick, head of the Division of Educational Psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), says that today’s classroom instruction is based on a flawed theory. “For a long time, we’ve assumed that children should get an immediate reward when they do something right,” he said. “But the brain is much more complicated than most of our instruction; it has many systems operating in parallel” (p. 2). The brain is perfectly satisfied to pursue novelty and curiosity, embrace relevance, and bathe in the feedback from successes. He suggests extended applications of projects and problem solving where the process is more important than the answer. That’s the real reward, he says (Nadia 1993).

Yet the old paradigm of behaviorism told us that to increase a behavior, we simply need to reinforce the positive. If there’s a negative behavior exhibited, we ought to ignore or punish it. This is the “outside-in” point of view. It’s as if we are looking at the student as the subject of an experiment. This approach says that if demotivation is an established condition, then there are causes and symptoms. ‘This way of understanding classroom behavior seemed to take sense for many. But our understanding of motivation and behavior has changed. Tokens, gimmicks, and coupons no longer make sense when compared with more attractive alternatives.

Neuroscientists take a different view of rewards. First, the brain makes its own rewards. They are called opiates, which are used to regulate stress and pain. These opiates can produce a natural high, similar to morphine, alcohol, nicotine, heroin, and cocaine. The reward system is based in the brain’s center, the hypothalamic reward system (Nakamura 1993). The pleasure-producing system lets you enjoy a behavior, like affection, sex, entertainment, caring, or achievement. You might call it a long-
term .survival mechanism. It’s as if the brain says, ‘That was good; let’s remember that and do it again!” Working like a thermostat or personal trainer, your limbic system ordinarily rewards cerebral learning with good feelings on a daily basis. Students who succeed usually feel good, and that’s reward enough for most of them. Figure 7.1 summarizes the brain’s internal reward system.

Does all of this mean that external rewards are also good for the brain? The answer is no. That’s because the brain’s internal reward system varies from one student to the next. You’d never be able to have a fair system. How students respond depends on genetics, their particular brain chemistry, and life experiences that have wired their brains in a unique way. Rewards work as a complex system of neurotransmitters binding to receptor sites on neurons. These sites act like ports for the docking of ships. Here, the neurotransmitters will either deliver an excitatory message to a NMDA (N-methyl-D- aspartate) receptor site or an inhibitory message to a GABA (gamma-amino- butyric acid) receptor. Without these “on” and “off” switches in the brain, the brain cells would fire indiscriminately That would give all life experiences the same weight, and learning would be either impaired dramatically or nearly impossible. Most teachers have found that the same external reward is received differently by two different students. However, when a learning experience is positive, nearly all students will respond favorably in their unique biological ways. That makes rewards unequal from the start.

From: Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen, 1998, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, pp64-65.