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Analysis of Kindergarten Cop Learning and Motivation

The purpose of the present study was to analyze the motion picture Kindergarten Cop, such that predominant themes in learning and motivation could be identified and discussed. Analysis suggests a range of learning techniques and motivational strategies were employed by the educators, though operant conditioning forms the basis of learning and motivation, with aspects of social cognitive learning and information processing theories also developed. There is a definite focus on closed, specific strategies rather than discovery learning, most likely due to the nature of the educator, and greater emphasis appears to be placed on behavior control than actual learning. Future studies should endeavor to tailor learning strategies to specific tasks, as this appears to be the most effective method.

Analysis of Learning and Motivation in Motion Picture Film Kindergarten Cop. Discerning the relationship between the educator, the learner, and the environment has been a fundamental aim in educational psychology for some time. It is little wonder then, that numerous studies have been conducted to identify effective teaching and motivational strategies that ensure a strong association between these three forces. The aim of the current study is to identify, analyze and evaluate the relationship between the educator, the learner, and the educational setting portrayed in the movie Kindergarten Cop so that primary themes in learning and motivation can be identified and explained.

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The movie itself follows the exploits of two tough-minded, undercover detectives John Kimble and Phoebe O’Hara, as they attempt to pin down a long-time drug dealer and suspected murderer, Cullen Crisp. Kimble initially arrests Crisp for murder, but since their key witness is an unreliable substance abuser, the detectives go in search of Crisp’s former wife (Rachel) and son (Cullen, Jr.), who are hiding somewhere in Astoria Oregon, to strengthen their case. Unfortunately, the police only know the approximate age of Cullen Jr. and possess almost no information about the mother. In order to identify the child, O’Hara is to pose as a substitute kindergarten teacher. However, on the trip to the school, she becomes violently ill, forcing the ungainly Kimble to take her place. From there, the movie depicts the relationship that builds between the kindergarten students and their new teacher, and the eventual learning outcomes for both.

As such, Kindergarten Cop presents an ideal medium of study, since it follows the learning and motivation of both the educator and the student, and depicts the strategies and relationships that are employed to ensure they both achieve. The primary educational setting portrayed in the movie comprises the Kindergarten classroom, a vibrant and colorful environment dotted with novel stimuli designed into congruency with the expected pre-operational nature (Inhelder & Piaget, 1964) of the children that inhabit its walls. The classroom is deliberately set to engage children in a range of activities that facilitate cognitive and psychomotor functioning. For example, the large playhouse creates a setting for make-believe and sociodramatic play (Berk, 2003), allowing children to rehearse the application and formation of new schemas (Piaget, 1962), which can be later employed in similar real-world settings.

Additionally, as the playhouse facilitates social interaction students will intuitively build and perfect important communication and persuasion skills through the process of intersubjectivity (Bodrova, 1996). Similarly, a range of smaller, more varied activities with a focus on the expected egocentrism of the kindergarten child (Piaget, 1962) attracts the natural curiosity and motivation of the students. Abstract exercises like arts and crafts motivate the learners to employ creativity, imagination, and discovery learning, engaging intuitive learning processes such as private speech (Franken, 2003). Likewise, numerous bodily-kinesthetic and tactile activities that involve movement and co-ordination help develop the children’s fine motor and psycho-motor skills (Berk, 2004).

The students appear comfortable and uninhibited in their classroom, as evidenced by one early scene in which they play freely in various different activities in the absence of the educator, and a strong relationship is evident between their motivation and the learning environment (Franken, 2003). Essentially, the classroom forms both a medium of learning for the students and also a motivational guide for learning. The role of the educator is played by the reluctant Kimble, who appears to have no teaching experience whatsoever. Initially, the motivational links between Kimble and his students are very weak, both because the children are far more motivated by their classroom than their teacher (Franken, 2003), and as they do not yet understand why they should obey and respect Kimble.

In order to motivate the students towards learning, Kimble utilizes a range of different strategies in different contexts. Primarily, operant conditioning is employed to gain control and social order within the classroom (Lieberman, 1974) upon which, faucets of social cognitive theory, information-processing theory, and reception learning are also applied. By doing so, Kimble creates a connection with the class and develops a strong link between their motivation and his teaching. As the film progresses, it is soon evident that the students are motivated to respect and obey their teacher, and to carry out the expected learning strategies of their teacher, suggesting his efficacy as an educator. Clearly then, the dominant themes portrayed in Kindergarten Cop relate to the efficacy of applying learning and motivational strategies based on psychology theory, to specific contexts.

Surely the most dominant learning and motivational strategy employed throughout the movie is Kimble’s use of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning represents an application of behaviorism to volitional behaviors (Brembs, 2003), and is a universal model of learning similar to the process of trial and error (Weiten, 2001). It is based on the assertion that the type of consequence that follows a specific response will determine the likelihood of that response reoccurring (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). Essentially, if a positive (pleasant) stimulus occurs after the behavior there will be an increase in the likelihood of that behavior, whereas a negative (aversive) response will decrease the likelihood of that behavior (Sdorow & Rickabaugh, 2002).

In the present study, the noise of Kimble’s police whistle serves to trigger a moderate startle response in the children, causing them to stand still instinctively (Greenburg, 2001). The behaviors directly following this response will then determine the consequence that Kimble employs (Mazur, 2002). When the student stands still and listens, they are positively rewarded with attention and praise (pleasant stimulus), and where the children do not, they are reprimanded with disappointment (aversive stimulus) and removal of praise (Iverson, 1992). Since kindergarten children are motivated to avoid punishment and seek rewards (Berk, 2003), they will quickly learn to associate the whistle with standing still and listening (Mazur, 2002).

Additionally, by later coupling the noise of the whistle with commands and orders, and then rewarding or punishing adherence for those commands, the children will also learn to associate the whistle with a ‘stop, listen and do’ mentality (Ackerman, 1972). In a particular scene for example, one child eats the lunches of his fellow students, and Kimble reprimands the child using an aggressive and angry tone, ordering the child to ‘stop it’ (Reitman, 1990). Here, the student receives a negative consequence in the removal of praise and attention (Dragoi & Staddon, 1999), and is likely to develop negative affect in the form of disappointment, decreased self-esteem, and self-worth (Barlow & Durand, 2003). Thus, the child is motivated to return to positive effects by avoiding future negative consequences and eliciting the desired behavior in order to gain positive rewards (Mazur, 2002).

Through this example, it becomes clear that operant conditioning serves dual roles in both learning and motivation. Indeed, as the student is rewarded for engaging in certain behaviors, they are also being motivated extrinsically to repeat those behaviors, and thus inherently increase the likelihood that learning will take place (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). Employing operant conditioning and extrinsic motivators is a common practice in almost all aspects of life and act as powerful deterrents. The threat of suspension, for example, is a powerful extrinsic motivator that ensures students do not violate school laws and expectations (Whitehead, 1984). Recent research by Yi-Guang, McKeachie & Yung Che (2001) suggests that extrinsic motivators are essentially limited, however, in that the more they are exercised the lower the perceived value of the motivation becomes.

As such, rewards and punishments should be applied only where necessary to engage students in learning and to develop and maintain a safe and inviting learning environment. Given the versatile nature of operant conditioning, it is not surprising to see it employed so regularly, however, often other methodologies are more appropriate. An example is evident in the application of strategies during the “stranger-danger” scene. In this case, applying conditioning principles would be ineffectual and impossible. Instead, Kimble and O’Hara apply the tenets of information processing theories to teach their students. Specifically, overlearning is employed with the goal of developing automaticity (Driskell, Willis & Copper, 1992), since an immediate response to an encounter with a stranger is required.

The concept of overlearning comprises firstly learning some new behavior, information, or skill, and then repeating the learning experience through drill and repetition via either the phonological loop or the visual-spatial sketchpad (Rohrer, Taylor, Pashler, Wixted & Cepeda, 2005). Automaticity is achieved once the knowledge is accessible via automated thinking, that is, once the pathway between perception and memory is so well practiced that it requires little or no effort, intention, or cognitive resources to activate (Aaronson, Wilson & Akert, 2005). In the current example, O’Hara firstly describes and explains the difference between a stranger and a normal person, and then the class repeats the phrase “we never talk to strangers”. Over time, they develop automaticity between the sensory information (a stranger) and the specific long-term storage (recognition of a stranger and not talking).

Their cries of ‘stranger! stranger! stranger!’ (Reitman, 1990) in a later scene shows an immediate reaction to a stranger (Crisp senior), suggesting that drilling and repetition achieved the desired learning outcomes effectively. Unlike conditioning, however, the motivational forces in information processing applications are not derived innately from the teaching processes, that is to say, there is no inherent reason why the students should engage in the repetitive activity (Franken, 2003). Indeed, given that it is highly repetitive it is likely also very boring for a 5-year-old. As such, Kimble and O’Hara must employ motivational tactics aimed at increasing the curiosity and interest in the topic. The pre-operational child is naturally curious and is more motivated towards learning something they find novel and appealing (Berk, 2004).

Thus, by getting O’Hara to talk about stranger danger, the topic may appear more interesting to the child because it is being presented by somebody new, subsequently increasing the intrinsic motivation towards the topic (Lashaway-Boinka, 2000). Whilst conditioning and information processing methods present effective strategies for conveying specific behaviors and beliefs, they are limited in that they do not equip the student with mechanisms for learning. Often, the teacher wants to convey the method of learning as well as the actual learning outcome. A perfect example of this need for teaching-learning skills can be seen in the ‘police school’ scene and Kimble’s application of social learning.

Essentially, the social cognitive theory is based on three primary assertions. Firstly, that the majority of human behavior is learned through observation of others. Secondly, that we imitate the observed behavior because we receive reinforcement to do so, and maintain that behavior via pro-longed reinforcement, and lastly, that observational learning can be explained in terms of operant conditioning (McInerney & McInerney, 2002). In the current example, Kimble develops these theoretical tenets into an application via his ‘police school’. Here, the educator portrays himself as a sheriff and demonstrates for the students a range of positive values inherently associated with being a policeman (Martin, 2004). By observing their teaching acting as a sheriff, the students then develop a positive schema about policemen, which they can then apply to their own behaviors when they begin their roles as ‘deputies’.

Thus, when the students do act as policemen, they will intuitively engage in the same positive behaviors that they have witnessed (Martin, 2004). To ensure that the behaviors are maintained, Kimble uses attention and praise as a positive reward (Mazur, 2002). For example, rewarding students with praise and attention when they carry out the task of getting a toy and coming to the carpet increases the likelihood that they will carry out that task again in similar circumstances (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). Of greater importance, however, is that by rewarding the children’s capacity to model positive behaviors in general, Kimble is effectively teaching the children how to teach themselves, and increases the likelihood that they will appeal to positive models in another aspect of learning.

Since social modeling behavior is reinforced with operant conditioning principles, the students are motivated extrinsically to perform and apply modeling behaviors, and in this case, to engage in correct ‘deputy’ behaviors (McInerney & McInerney, 2002). However, as the children progress and begin to use models as sources of behavior and beliefs in other aspects of life and learning, they will employ the modeling process of observation and imitation for purely intrinsic reasons (Martin, 2004). Social cognitive-based methodologies are often applied in schools and are most commonly used to make wide-scale behavior changes. In a recent study, for example, Tripp, Herrmain, Parcel, Chamberlain & Grtiz (2000), employed a similar methodology of coupling modeling behavior with positive reinforcement in pre-school children to increase sun protection.

Specifically, parents and teachers engaged in modeling behavior by wearing wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen, and then encouraged and rewarded students and children for behaving similarly. As expected, the children were positively reinforced and motivated to wear hats and use sunscreen, and over time the usage increased, suggesting the efficacy of applying social cognitive theory to the real-world. Whilst social modeling techniques are often useful and effective, there are aspects of education that it cannot address. Bodily-kinesthetic development, for example, is an important area of development that must be guided with strict instruction and care, least the child’s fine motor, gross motor and psycho-motor skills develop haphazardly (Berk, 2004). During the physical activity scene, Kimble is faced with this challenge of teaching safe, bio-metrically correct methods of exercise and fitness, and in order to do so, appeals to the doctrine of reception learning (McInerney & McInerney 2002).

Reception learning theory holds that the educator should firstly demonstrate the behavior, then explain the components of that behavior and lastly offer narration and guidance as the learner engages in the behavior (Novak, 1979). In the case of the marching scenes, this is exactly what Kimble does, demonstrating marching and then providing help and guidance along the way. Once the students have developed the correct marching behavior, Kimble applies derivative subsumption by building further aspects of physical activity such as climbing and resistance training onto the basic foundations of marching and co-ordination (McInerney & McInerney, 2002). Given that the students are only five years olds, more time is spent building onto known foundational concepts than is spent expanding and comparing newer concepts.

In the process of psycho-motor development, the motivation behind the learning is far more relative here than in any other situation and is likely to vary from individual to individual (Franken, 2003). Primarily, all students would be motivated to engage in an activity because not participating would result in a negative consequence of social isolation and removal of praise (Mazur, 2002). However, there is also evidence to suggest some are motivated socially by competition and performance (Vaughn and Hogg, 2002) as evident in the ‘sit-up competition’ scene. Likewise, it is just as possible that the students are motivated to learn physically because the freedom of movement and activity is innately enjoyable (Carron, Hausenblas & Estabrooks, 2003), or that the children are motivated to be active because physical activity creates body heat which leads to a decrease in musculature discomfort and a release of positive endorphins (Cox, 2002).

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that by applying the propositions of reception learning, the children are assured a safe and correct pathway to funnel their motivational forces towards learning. When assessing the efficacy of the teaching strategies employed and depicted throughout the movie, it is quickly evident that no single approach is appropriate for every task, and that the learning requirements and context of every situation should determine the strategies employed. It is equally important to identify a congruent motivational basis as well, as some activities will not require any sort of external motivation, whilst others will require complex and sophisticated methods to ensure the children actually engage in the activity at hand.

An effective learning pedagogy should begin with a thorough analysis of the task itself, assessing important factors such as the desired task outcomes, the necessary resources, and the input on behalf of the learner, before determining which strategy would be most effective. A task such as painting, with non-specific outcomes, would be more suited to the discovery learning approach, whereas learning to drive through discovery would highly ineffectual. In essence, the processes surrounding learning are vast and complex and should be assessed and measured appropriately before effective learning and motivational strategies can be applied.


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