Monday, February 13, 2012

Turning play into work

The more I read of Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards, the more challenging I see it to some of the practices that are simply taken for granted at school.  It's a good book for a book group as there are likely to be very many different opinions - especially from those teachers who are giving out awards, stars, golden time and so on.  Many of these will find it hard to accept that rewards smother interest and enthusiasm for activities that students already enjoy and hopefully the group will be a place where we can discuss all these different perspectives.

The first few chapters of the book are all about how rewards (and punishments) are extrinsic motivators.  What we are trying to achieve in schools, however, is intrinsic motivation which is powerful because it means you are doing something for its own sake - simply because you enjoy doing it.  For example I spend quite a bit of my spare time reading blogs and writing posts on my own blogs.  Nobody rewards me for doing this (quite the opposite in fact) but I do it because I enjoy the connections I make with other educators and that is reward in itself.  In a similar way we want our students to be intrinsically motivated as this will lead to them doing well in school.  Alfie Kohn has demonstrated the many ways that extrinsic motivators such as rewards undermine intrinsic motivation and therefore undermine creativity and success.

Many psychological studies have reinforced Kohn's findings, but the real question is why?  Why do extrinsic motivators turn play into work?  It seems that this is because they are interfering with our choices, with the way we control our own destinies, or in another word, our autonomy.  Kohn writes:
When something interferes with this sense of self-determination - when, for example, we are simply told what we have to do (and how and when to do it), various undesirable consequences follow ... If we have very little discretion about what we do all day at work or school, there is a good chance we will spend the time wishing the weekend would arrive.
Kohn goes on to list a number of circumstances that erode intrinsic motivation.  As well as rewards, this list includes being threatened or warned about what will happen if we don't do something well enough, being watched and being evaluated.

It's interesting that I had a conversation about these very issues last week at school.  Studies of children and adults have shown that they lose interest in tasks when they are carefully monitored, especially when the surveillance is to check our performance or to evaluate how good a job we are doing.  This is more frequently called "accountability", but all that really happens is that intrinsic motivation, performance and creativity declines - even when the evaluation turns out positive.  Kohn writes:
Anytime we are encouraged to focus on how well we are doing at something (as opposed to concentrating on the process of actually doing it), it is less likely that we will like the activity and keep doing it when given a choice.
Other circumstances that have a detrimental effect on performance include being forced to work under deadlines, being ordered around and competing against other people:
When success is turned into winning .... the consequences include a drastic reduction in interest.  That doesn't mean we necessarily stop engaging in the activity... but typically we do so with less interest in the task itself.
Replacing intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation is detrimental to our mental health as it affects "our sense of ourselves  as basically competent and worthwhile, of being able to have an impact on the events that shape our lives."  Praise itself, it seems, makes us feel bad.  This is the subject of the next chapter of Punished by Rewards.

Photo Credit:  Childhood Toys by Rebecca Weaver  AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike

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