• Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes

    By Alfie Kohn


    This book is a challenge to society's reliance on carrot-and-stick psychology and an indictment of rewards at home, school and work.

    Kohn begins by providing some background on the behaviorism and the work of Watson, Pavlov and Skinner.  After explaining in detail how their theories and experiments resulted in much success with animals, Kohn demonstrates how different humans are and reasons why effectiveness of success with rats should be called into question when dealing with humans.

    When people love what they are doing, they will do it on their own time (sort of like me reading all of these books and posting synopses on my website on my own time). 

    Kohn tells stories of ways in which rewards actually can be seen as a clever strategy for undermining interest in something and makes a good argument for that in terms of the grades used in our educational system. 

    Being forced to work under deadlines also has been found to result in a reduction of interest. Question: are the artificial deadlines imposed on students helping or hindering them in the long run in terms of their interest in specific subject areas and their attainment of knowledge in those areas?

    A good argument is made against turning students against one another by using grading systems which allow only a few students to earn top marks.  When students become rivals, everyone suffers, as the classroom becomes an area marked by hostility and sabotage, as opposed to one of cooperation. 

    A whole chapter is dedicated to the fact that young children do NOT need to be rewarded to learn - they need to be left at it without a complicated system of rewards that detracts from the learning.  Rewards are less effective than intrinsic motivation for promoting effective learning and several studies demonstrate why.  Educators need to create conditions under which children can become engaged with academic tasks.  Student interest levels and attention are much more important in terms of evidence of learning than grades.  Although we as a culture have produced millions of students who perform well, jump through hoops, check off all the boxes of required courses, and make grades, we have to admit that many of them hate every minute of it and end up seriously burned out by the time they are about to enter university, where we hope to see increased excitement and engagement.  Too often, students are excited more about the parties they will attend in college than the intellectual growth they will experience.

    While many teachers give explicit instructions on how to manage every stage of an assignment, research shows that creativity is stifled by exacting specificationsChildren need opportunities to make decisions and feel some sense of self-determination in their work, even if that results in some confusion and challenge for them.

    Administrators spend a great deal of time setting expectations that every student can and will reach a certain standard in each subject area, forcing teachers to exact those standards of children, forcing children to feel that they are under the gun to learn the same thing at the same pace as everyone else.  Teachers who have more freedom in terms of their expectations result in students feeling less constrained and in academic environments that are less limited or controlled.  The result: more self-efficacy for students, less standardization in terms of the definition of success and less burnout. 

    Classroom expectations often reflect the very conditions that do not lend themselves to creative and independent learning.  We say we want children to ask thoughtful questions, help others, and make responsible decisions, but then we send the message that they must be quiet, get X amount of work done in X amount of time, and not goof off with their peers.  While those expectations can certainly dovetail, there must be time for children to behave naturally as they engage with projects, new information and problem solving.

    What can we do if we don't punish or reward teachers and/or students? 

    We can provide feedback, have two-way conversations, trade ideas, experiment with new ways to solve problems.  We can look at education and growth in students and teachers as a continuous process rather than a semester or annual event.  We can set aside ranking and competition.  We can create conditions where everyone has the opportunity to feel motivated, collaborate with others, and grow at their own pace. We can use evaluations instead of grades as a means of providing feedback to students.  Grades serve as a way to sort students into groups, but they don't tell us much about a students motivation or potential in any given area.  They provide colleges with a means of judging a student, but again, they provide a false sense of promise for some who are great at following rules and meeting expectations set by others, and often leave behind the creative, outside-the-box thinkers who could be wildly successful at university. 

    Comments about work with feedback on what is effective and what can be improved tells someone far more than a B+ or C-.  However, the grade is quicker and easier, but doesn't really give a student much to move forward with in terms of improving skills or analysis or problem-solving. The question is, do we want to use grades to sort students or is there another purpose behind the system?  Grading fixes attention on performance, does not provide useful information about what skills needs additional attention or development, and take up much student time in terms of worrying about the importance of the grade or gpa. 

    "Teachers and parents who care about learning need to do everything in their power to help students forget that grades exist."  The interest should be in a student's interest in learning.

    Parents need to replace conversations about grades with questions such as: "What does it feel like when you solve a tough math problem?"  Why do you think the Civil War began?  Did you read something that surprised you? 

    Suggestions:  reduce the number of grades to 2: A and Incomplete.  The theory is that work that doesn't merit an A is not finished yet.  Interesting theory.  Never grade on a curve. Don't artificially limit good grades.  Bring students into the evaluation process.  Work with them to determine the criteria by which their learning is assessed. Include students in any changes in how grading will take place.  Take their suggestions into consideration. 

    Message to Administration: Don't expect teachers to take on the burden of this massive change on their own.  Educational reform has to be school wide or students are left feeling that the ungraded courses are less important than those that are graded.  Parents will not support change if they are not part of the process and feel that they will get some more useful information, as grades are often their only window into what is happening at school. 

    Even if abolishing grades doesn't happen, the most egregious practice, such as using them to rank students against one another, can certainly be eliminated.  (An argument for eliminating rank has been presented to the Board in June 2016 and they have requested that administration get parent and student input prior to implementing.  Abolishing this practice has been supported by 100% of the counseling staff at all TUHSD high schools, and many of the books recommended on this site bolster the argument.)

    Learning as discovery: some great ideas about eliciting curiosity and welcoming mistakes is shared. Collaboration as the default condition in the classroom is supported, especially given that collaborating is what most adults do in the real world (in jobs, relationships, co-parenting, etc.). Contextualizng information so that it has meaning is discussed, along with a high tolerance for unpredictability, as you never know where the imaginations and questions of students may lead a well-planned lesson.  We learn by actively constructing knowledge, weighing new information against previous understanding, thinking about and working through new issues and coming to a new understanding.  There are many "right ways" to solve problems, and students often come up with engaging ideas to make the lesson more relevant to their lives and more exciting.

    Some problem solving approaches are discussed.  Among those I like is modeling respectful listening, trying to help others and admitting our mistakes. 

    A great deal of emphasis is placed on students' right to control events in their lives, maintain some autonomy and be given increasing amounts of responsibility so that they can learn to make decisions.  Adults need to "get out of their way" as they practice decision making, or they will never become adept at it.  Instead, they will constantly turn to adults, and live at home well into their 40's.  As there is no precise formula for the age, issues and amount of voice to give students, following development guidelines is at least a step in the right direction.

    The capacity to call into questions one's long-standing ways of thinking and acting belongs at the top of any list of what makes a good parent or teacher. 

    Providing time for students to read is effective at promoting both skills and interest

    Offering money for grades is, in effect, offering a reward for a reward.  Hence, the damaging effects are compounded.  this results in lower grades, poorer achievement,less motivation, pleasure and persistence in doing school work. 

    We should be helping students to become fully engaged.  Instead, we are often putting a date and achievement stamp on how well they are doing school. 

    Lastly, stop praising every little act.  Kohn likens the constant parental praise of every student act to a verbal tic, like Parental Tourette's Syndrome.  Children do not need every success or flaw to be pointed out to them and rewarded or punished.  They are generally intelligent enough to know when they have given their finest effort, or not. 

    All in all, a very interesting read, with numerous empirical studies into why the current system of rewards in our educational, parenting and work worlds is not effective in cultivating curiosity and a love of learning. 

    Posted by Sheila Souder on 09/07/2016