Saturday, January 5, 2013

Punished by Rewards




Over winter break I read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards.

The title means what it says: Rewards punish.

When I began teaching I thought that rewards and punishments were opposites. Perhaps the reason that I made that mistake is that I had grown up in a household that took seriously a Biblical verse about “sparing the rod and spoiling the child.” My dad made wooden paddles, “Magic Wands,” he called them, to pass out at church. Magic Wands were paddles for spanking children. 

Magic Wands worked backwards on me. I became angrier and meaner. I got into more mischief than before. Magic wands motivated me to cover my tracks. I tried to get away with whatever I could. I hated them and resented the hands that wielded them.

Fortunately, as my dad began to escalate from wands to belts someone helped my parents to see that there was no magic in their wands. Whoever intervened, I thank them. My parents eventually gave up the “Magic Wand” enterprise. Their discipline style evolved into something less harmful. 

As I began teaching at Dunham I strongly believed in what I mistook to be a better way: rewarding kids for “good” behavior. Having been on the receiving end of punishment I learned for certain that punishments (and their cousin, “consequences”) are not helpful. Instead of punishments, I thought rewards would work. I believed the false nostrum, “You catch more bees with honey than with vinegar.” 

Too many years of experience trying to make rewards work taught me, painfully, that rewards don’t work either. I adopted one program after another trying to use incentives on kids. Each time my incentive programs ended badly. 

I couldn’t make a reward system work because reward systems are wrong from the get-go.

Kohn’s book cites research studies done by many researchers studying rewards in business, at schools, and in families.  Wherever the are used, reward don’t work. They don’t work in schools. Forget rewards if you’re trying to influence a child to become a better citizen—he’ll more likely become a worse citizen. Forget rewards if you’re trying to motivate a child to work harder on their lessons—she’ll more likely lose interest in her studies and learn to hate schoolwork. 

Rewards just plain don’t work

Not only do rewards not work—rewards make things worse. Rewards send kids the message that whatever was done to earn the reward isn’t worth doing for its own sake. Rewards distract kids from thinking about the inherent value of pro-social behavior. 

Rewards punish in many other ways, and if you read the book you’ll learn about them.

On rereading this book I was struck by how hard it is to abandon all forms of reward in school, including simple praise (and more complicated grades). I'm on the path, but not there yet.

I’ve come to see that punishment and reward are two faces of a single coin: the coin of trying to control kids.  The impulse to strike a kid is very similar to the impulse to praise or reward a kid. It’s the impulse to control. 

As parents and educators we can do better: we can educate and inspire kids.

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