Drowning, Not Learning

In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar PhD describes one model of motivation that influences the approach a student may take to their learning. He calls it the “Drowning Model”.

“The drowning model shows two things; that the desire to free ourselves from pain can be a strong motivator and that, once freed, we can easily mistake our relief for happiness. A person whose head is forced under water will suffer discomfort and pain and will struggle to escape. If, at the last moment, his head is released, he will gasp for air and experience a sense of intoxicating relief. The situation may be less dramatic for students who do not enjoy school, but the nature of their motivation – the need to avoid a negative consequence – is similar. Throughout the term, drowning in work that they do not enjoy, students are motivated by their fear of failure. At the end of the term, liberated from their books and papers and exams, they feel an overwhelming sense of relief – which, in the moment, can feel a lot like happiness. This pattern of pain followed by relief is the model that is imprinted upon us from Grade School. It is easy to see how, unaware of alternative models, living as a rat racer could seem the most normal and attractive prospect.”

Shahar describes a Rat Racer as someone who subordinates the present for the future, suffering now for the purpose of some perceived gain in the future.

Our culture reinforces this model. At work an employee will  get a salary bonus for reaching an annual sales quota. At the end of a school year, a student may be awarded an A grade, receive a School Prize and be rewarded by their parents. We are rewarded for the result; the end point; the successful completion of the task.

The relief felt at the completion of a task (particular if compounded by material rewards) can be mistaken for happiness – this in turn leads the Rat Racer to accept that the sacrifices he made were worth it. However, how long does this feeling of relief last? How long before the Rat Racer feels the pressure to start the sacrificial process all over again in pursuit of his next bout of relief?

Think of the average student at school. Does your school actively encourage this approach to life?

A quality education must ensure that students enjoy and are rewarded throughout their learning, and not just the sum total of their learning. The  A grade, the School Prize and the reward from Mum and Dad can be pleasant incidentals, but should never be the driving force.

A quality education must encourage students to recognise emotional rewards as being as important as financial or material rewards. In doing this we will discourage the Rat Racer attitude that determines a student will follow a career path because “it pays better”, or “it’s what my parents want me to do”. Hopefully students will follow a path they want to go down, and as such the achievement of their goals will involve less emotional sacrifice. If students are encouraged to pursue their passions and strengths, they will find meaning in the work/study they do. If they find meaning in the work/study they are doing then they will reap great emotional rewards throughout their learning, and not only a sense of relief upon the completion of an assessment task or the HSC.

0 thoughts on “Drowning, Not Learning

  1. Joanne Coll Reply

    Oh dear,
    Your beginning to freak me out Dan. Am I meant to be able to relate to each post?!

  2. Pingback: Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves… « danhaesler.com

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