Punished by Rewards

I had read Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn and written a paper on it for a college course in classroom management in 2001.  In lieu of posting a half-baked blog entry, I am resorting to regurgitating this old college paper that seems to have some relevance in my life now.  I’m not currently teaching a classroom, but I am teaching and raising my daughter.

Of course, now that I’ve re-read this paper (and might even pick up the book again), I’m starting to rethink how I’m teaching my daughter.  This may expand into me opening up all the old child psychology books.  Here I had dusted off this old thing to try and make my life easier…

Punished By Rewards

Okay, Matt, all you have to do is get through this first chapter and you can wind down with the television for a bit.

That was the first thing that ran through my head as I initially opened Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards.  Needless to say, I became very critical of my own educational practices and teaching strategies throughout the course of reading this book.  Kohn shakes up the very foundation of many deeply revered beliefs in American society, and I am inclined to shimmy along with.

The first thing to crumble the walls of my previous ideals was the enormous amount of proof against the use of rewards.  First, it’s insulting to think that the entire system of using rewards as motivation is based on research with animals and mentally imbalanced people.  Second, it’s eye-opening to see that those were the only cases in which the results were even mildly successful and that any research done with normally functioning human beings showed just how damaging rewards are.

It makes sense that Kohn’s arguments against rewards include such things as the lack of a relationship between rewards and the behavior or action that they are intended to enforce and that using rewards only works for so many instances.  What surprised me was that the use of rewards killed people’s interest in the rewarded actions.  To think that offering a reward would make a person eventually less interested in the desired action seemed ludicrous.

But the proof is there, as I now see in my own recreational writing.  As a freshman in high school I started a ‘zine by the title of The Non-Conforming Conformists’ News.  While the contents are hardly newsworthy and seldom of any value except entertainment, it is something that I have happily labored over during the past eight years of my life.  Unfortunately the act of writing and presenting my work in an appealing manner has lost its charm, as the current issue has been in a state of incompleteness for a year now.  Plus, much of what has gone into this issue seems forced.  Writing to a reward has taken from the joy of writing for the sake of writing.

At this point I will interject with a few thoughts that came to mind often while writing this paper: How many pages am I up to?  Is the length sufficient enough to appease my professor?  If I use this word instead of this other one, will I sound more intellectual and therefore more deserving of a good grade?  Despite my acceptance of Kohn’s views, I am still getting hung up on all the extrinsic motivators.  Worse still, I know that once this paper is graded and returned, I will go over it again and pick out just where I could have done a much more satisfactory job.  Only after the pressure is gone will I produce a better, more well-thought result.

Perhaps the part that hit home the most was Kohn’s words on page 80: “Some people, for a variety of reasons, grow to depend on an externally imposed structure to the point that they wait until the last possible minute before starting a task.”  Indeed, I did not pick up Kohn’s book until a few days before this paper was due, and I finally sat down to type this paper shortly before 2:00, giving me three hours to complete it.  But I’ve played the game long enough to know that I can get away with this, and 99.9% of the time I do.  By eliminating the hand-written first draft and editing as I go along, often stopping in the middle of paragraphs to review earlier ones, I can condense the entire process of writing into one single burst of frenzied typing to a deadline.  It’s not a proud thing to admit, but I feel that it’s something that I will have to own up to in order to change.

I am living proof to myself that rewards are harmful.  I just needed something to point the proof out to me.

Something else that came to mind during the course of reading Kohn’s text was the essay that I have to write for my application to the student teaching program.  The entire paper is to revolve around my own beliefs and abilities as an educator.  Already it has gone through several revisions since my original final draft from a year ago.  This book has perhaps made the largest impact on it, causing me to make modifications of my methods of teaching, evaluation, and classroom management.  I’ve also heaved a sigh of relief for the various factors that caused me to delay my student teaching.  This essay is essentially all these schools have to go on to decide if I am worthy of being accepted into their community to be fostered into a full-fledged teacher.  What if I had sent the now erroneous original version?  What would the school officials say when SCSU sent them a student teacher whose values differ, sometimes drastically, from what they expected to get?

And just what are these changes?  I think I may have already determined that it’s far too late in the game to change my strategy as far as my own education goes.  I must endure this punishment of rewards, more so in some classes than others, in order to make it out of college.  Indeed, I often find myself saying that.  “I’m just at this university (or job, as is the case with my menial part-time work) to get a degree and get on with real life.”  There is my mistake: My education is my real life.  I treat my education as a hoop to jump through to become an educator.  The irony is almost painful.

I have resolved to change my methods of teaching, as I said earlier.  I am partial to Kohn’s suggestion of offering only two options for grading: A and Incomplete.  I find this to be a novel idea, and I’m eager to see its effectiveness.  The thought that just telling students that the teacher sees their work as either on par with their capabilities, and only their capabilities, or not seems like just the thing to foster, or rekindle, a desire to learn.  Also, I think that the largest thing that I have to watch is my language.  I don’t think that, at any point in my life up until now, did I think that “Good work!” and “I see why you’re a straight-A student!” were swear words.  Mental note: I must edit my “101 Ways to Praise Children” card.

The time is now 4:00.  I am going to save this paper to my disk and take it home to print it, as well as take care of my weekly rituals before arriving for class in an hour.  I doubt that I will do much more than scan the paper for grammatical errors, being as I tend to see them better when they’re on paper instead of the computer screen.  I will hand it in and wait for its return next week, and some back burner in my mind will ponder the grade it will receive.  Old habits die hard.  But, for the benefit of the students I will have in the future, die they must.

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