Monday, March 21, 2011

Punished by Rewards

To view the original source of this post, please click here. Thank you to Joe Bower for sharing this response.
The National Journal posted the question "should students be paid to learn?" to their panel of insiders. Here is Alfie Kohn's response:

Alfie Kohn (, author of Punished by Rewards andThe Schools Our Children Deserve, submitted the following:

Rewards, like punishments, can produce only one thing: temporary obedience. What they can never do is help kids become more effective or enthusiastic learners. In fact, a huge body of research demonstrates that exactly the opposite is true: Dangling carrots in front of people is actually counterproductive.

What the data show, more specifically, is that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. To understand why, it helps to realize that the meaningful question isn’t “Will rewards motivate kids?” but “What kind of motivation do rewards create?” And the answer is: “A motivation to get more rewards.” Unfortunately, that tends to reduce their motivation to learn.

Psychologists distinguish between intrinsic motivation, in which the learning itself is seen as meaningful, and extrinsic motivation, in which the learning becomes just a means to an end. That end could be money, grades, stickers, or any other incentive. More than 75 studies have shown that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren't just different; they tend to be inversely related.

Thus, for example, kids who are led to focus on grades -- the reward of an A – are apt to think in a more superficial fashion, prefer easier tasks, and find learning less interesting when you compare them to kids in classrooms where grades are absent or invisible. Paying kids for good grades is basically a reward for a reward. It doubles the damage.

The bottom line is that dangling incentives in front of children is a way of doing things to them. It’s a form of sugar-coated control. In the long run people react badly to being controlled, even if they like the goody itself. In fact, the bigger or more desirable the reward, the more damage it tends to do, according to the research.

But in the case of initiatives like Fryer’s, the news is even worse. To this point I’ve just been addressing the method: How do we get kids to do something? My contention is that, apart from the inherently objectionable nature of carrot-and-stick control, rewards are ineffective at best (for producing anything beyond temporary compliance) and harmful at worst – even if the goal is laudable. But in these programs, the goal isn’t to help students love learning or think more deeply. The goal is just to raise scores on bad tests to make the adults look good. Standardized exams, as I and others have explained elsewhere, measure what matters least. We even have studies that demonstrate a statistically significant negative correlation between deep thinking, on the one hand, and results on a range of standardized tests, on the other. So what you’ve got with these cash-for-scores programs is a flawed means married to a terrible objective – the worst of both worlds.

One reason adults are so fond of reward programs is that they’re spared from having to ask why kids have to be bribed in the first place. What would it take to create a school where kids want to show up? How can we nourish kids’ natural curiosity and desire to learn? What does it say about homework that children dread doing it and rarely find it of value? To answer those questions, to make school meaningful for students, takes time and talent and courage. But you don’t need any of those things to toss kids a goodie when they jump through your hoops. Such programs are powerfully conservative in that they discourage us from changing the status quo.

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