Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Good behavior -v- good values

Over the past few days I've been reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.  There is a lot to think about in this book, so I'm reflecting on it chapter by chapter.  Up to now I've been thinking about how rewards and punishments affect motivation and achievement, however the chapter I read today delves deeper into how these affect not just behavior, but also a person's deeper values.

As teachers we talk about the necessity of students developing 21st century skills.  These are things like creativity and critical thinking, questioning, collaboration and so on.  We also talk a lot about students developing responsibility, becoming caring, developing self-confidence, being open-minded and so on.  In the PYP these attributes are embedded in the learner profile and in the attitudes that we want students to  demonstrate.  Alfie Kohn writes that rewards and punishments are worthless for helping students develop these values and skills because all they do is produce temporary compliance, rather than building good values.  He writes:
A child who complies in the hope of getting a reward or avoiding a punishment is not, as we sometimes say, "behaving himself."  It would be more accurate to say the reward or punishment is behaving him.
It's interesting that when students are asked what they think good behavior is, they mention things such as following the rules, keeping quiet, not moving around too much, keeping busy with their work and sticking to the schedule.  They see the teacher's role as maintaining discipline, rather than helping students to be reflective or caring.  However Kohn writes, "children do not learn to be moral by learning to obey roles that others make for them."

Some years ago I read a book called "Grounded for Life" which was about how to communicate better with teenagers.  This book proposes that young people who misbehave suffer the logical or natural consequences of their behavior.  For example if a teenager doesn't do homework, the natural consequence is that they receive a lower grade, if the teenager forgets to bring in a permission slip for a trip, the natural consequence is that the student misses the trip.  One of the things I liked about this book is that it clearly asks:  whose problem is this?  It recommends stepping back and being interested and understanding, but not anxious - don't try to lessen the results the negative consequences bring.  The argument here is that as adults we learn by the natural consequences of what we do and these consequences can be used to teach children too.

Ultimately we would like students to be ethical and to avoid doing certain things because they know these actions will have a negative or hurtful affect on themselves or others.  Kohn argues that punishment doesn't contribute to such values, because it just teaches that if students are caught doing something forbidden they will suffer the consequences.  He argues:
Teaching children to think about the consequences (to themselves) of doing something wrong does nothing to nurture a lasting commitment to good values.
In the same way we would like students to be caring towards others, however Kohn shows that the evidence is that students who are rewarded for being caring are less likely to think of themselves as caring or compassionate people.  This is because rewards punish:
It is no less controlling to offer goodies for a desired behavior than to threaten sanctions for its absence.
Good behavior and good values, it seems, are two completely different things.  Rewards and punishments may in the short term encourage good behavior, but Kohn writes that they will never encourage good values.

Photo Credit:  Attitude: Joy by Michael Dreves Beier  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike


  1. I am really enjoying your posts and it is giving me much to think about. I have been a teacher since 1974 and still struggle with the best way to teach my students and help them to develop.

    My question is: How do we teach children good values if this is not being reinforced at home?

    Heather Davis

    PS I am unable to get any of my accounts accepted to publish because it has to be linked to one of the ones listed.

    Traditionally, values have been taught at home and then hopefully reinforced by the school (though we have probably failed in this a bit because of the focus on rewards and punishments). How do we approach it.

    One of the problems also arises in international schools especially in the Asian countries where getting a head at all costs is consider acceptable. We run into this frequently. In western society or schools plagiarism is not accepted at all but in many other cultures it is allowed or even suggested as a way to fight your way to the top and get your place.If these values are being taught at home how can we influence what is happening especially if I am teacher from a western culture?

  2. Hi Heather,
    Because I have also taught in schools in both Europe and Asia I know what you mean about different values that are promoted at home and at school. A little over a year ago I blogged about this too. Not sure if you were reading my blog at that time so I'm including a link for you here:
    Thanks so much for your comments.