Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rewards and Punishments - the stick is contained in the carrot

One reaction to my blog post about awards and rewards yesterday was "Woah .... Heavy!"  I think this is a heavy subject especially as the assertions of Alfie Kohn are in direct contrast to what most people, including most teachers, believe about rewards and punishments.   At one time, I also gave out rewards and awards as a teacher and this was reinforced by the schools I taught at.   In one very extreme case with a girl who was an elective mute, all her teachers were encouraged to put a marble into a jar that she carried around with her every time she spoke a word. (The jar was never very full - even at the time I found that it seemed to be reinforcing the fact that she chose not to speak).

In Chapter 3 of Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn asks how effective it is to reward.  Although he agrees that rewards can increase the probability that we will do something, he argues that rewards also change the way we do it and our reasons for doing it, therefore they change the attitude we have towards what we are doing.  He also points to many studies that show that rewards do not lead to lasting change - which is presumably what we are trying to encourage by rewarding students.  There is certainly some heavy language here:
If your objective is to get people to obey an order, to show up on time and do what they're told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies.  But if your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless.  In fact we are beginning to see they are worse than useless - they are actually counterproductive.
Later in the chapter, Kohn goes on to discuss how students who are extrinsically motivated use less sophisticated learning strategies and score lower on tests than children who are interested in learning for its own sake and in Chapter 4 Kohn goes on to use the term "rewards punish".   This is because both rewards and punishments use motivation as a way of manipulating behavior.  He writes that there is no real difference between someone who says "Do this and you'll get that" and someone who says "Do this or here's what will happen to you."

Kohn goes on to develop his theory about why rewards, in the end, create the same feelings as punishments:
If reward recipients feel controlled, it is likely that the experience will assume a punitive quality over the long run, even though obtaining the reward itself is usually pleasurable.
Reading this was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me as I finally came to understand why some teachers don't enjoy the "rewards" of being promoted to a leadership position, particularly in schools where they then just end up being even more controlled by those in senior leadership positions, as it becomes even more important that as leaders they "toe the party line".  Interestingly I've heard teachers who have said they have chosen to give up the extra money and status in order to reclaim more control over their own professional lives and to become more ethical and principled.   On the other hand Kohn also addresses what happens if people don't get the rewards they are hoping to get and writes, "the effect of this is, in practice, indistinguishable from punishment."

Kohn points out that unexpected rewards are less destructive than rewards that people know about beforehand and are deliberately trying to obtain.  However unexpected rewards are often quite rare:
The whole point is to control people's behavior, and the most effective way to do this is to describe what will be given to them if they comply - or done to them if they don't comply.  For this very reason, the possibility of ending up without the reward, which makes the process essentially punitive, is always present.  The stick is contained in the carrot.
Photo Credit:  Carrot + Stick < Love  by Libby Levi AttributionShare Alike

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