Punished by Rewards: A Review

Book Review: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993)


 Twenty years later, Alfi Kohn’s controversial book Punished by Rewards is, well, still controversial. At the crux of Kohn’s argument is a decidedly anti-behaviorist sentiment that begins with John Watson then quickly evolves and maintains focus on the behavioral psychologist BF Skinner. Quickly, for those of us who managed to avoid an introductory psychology class during our undergraduate years, operant conditioning purports to control behavior after the fact through the introduction or removal of reinforcements (if you are a behaviorist) otherwise referred to as rewards or punishments (if you are a…Kohnian?).  In Chapter 1: “Skinner-Boxed: The Legacy of Behaviorism”, Kohn takes to task the operant conditioning dogma of behaviorism as fundamentally flawed, as denying a sense of “self” and indeed, humanity in all its complexity of values, beliefs, morality and uniqueness. Kohn believes that Skinnerian thought and practices reduce human behavior to a simple extrinsically motivated standard, “Do this and you’ll get that”. Where does Skinnerian thought enter the cultural lexicon, or what Kohn refers to as “pop behaviorism”? Apparently it pervades American society; teachers, parents and managers all subscribe to some form of pop behaviorism when they employ extrinsic techniques to control behavior. Essentially, anyone that occupies the heavy end of a power relationship and is able to control through the simple mind-set of “Do this and you’ll get that” is a Skinnerian of some form or another.

Part one of Kohn’s book lays out, in repetitious detail, the essential failings of using a Skinnerian model of rewards and punishment, expanding his argument to include the misuse of praise. Among other topics, he discusses “the consequences of patterning psychology after the natural sciences” which reduces humans to “things”, the problem with token economies, and why rewards and punishment may work for a short time, but ultimately will fail long-term through an erosion of intrinsic motivation. The chapter titles are:

Chapter 2: Is it Right to Reward?

Chapter 3: Is it Effective to Reward?

Chapter 4: The Trouble with Carrots: Four Reasons Rewards Fail

Chapter 5: Cutting the Interest Rate; The Fifth Reason Rewards Fail

Chapter 6: The Praise Problem

Part two of Punished by Rewards focuses on the aspects of society where rewards and punishments are doled out with alarming frequency, namely the workplace, the classroom and by parents. Chapter 8: “Lures for Learning: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Classroom” examines the problems behind using rewards to enhance students’ interest and achievement. Kohn examines what he believes to be three facts regarding the motivation to learn:

Fact 1: Young children don’t need to be rewarded to learn.

Fact 2: At any age, rewards are less effective than intrinsic motivation for promoting effective learning.

Fact 3: Rewards for learning undermine intrinsic motivation.

Kohn goes on to denigrate the idea that children must be made to learn, arguing that coercive and controlling classroom environments are antithetical to fashioning students that are intrinsically motivated, life long learners. Other chapters in this section include:

Chapter 7: Pay for Performance: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Workplace

Chapter 9: Bribes for Behavior: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Help Children Become Good People

In the final section of Punished by Rewards, Kohn provides mangers, teachers and parents with some alternative thinking to “Do this and you’ll get that”, though by no means is his advice prescriptive or exact. Rather, this final section admits that the alternatives aren’t simple, nor are they easily distilled into one easily packaged substitute but rather is contingent upon the goals of the parent, teacher and manager. Kohn believes that motivation and the making of “good kids” should come from a place of inclusion, collaboration, choice, and the removal of rewards rather than control and manipulation. Chapter 11: “Hooked on Learning: The Roots of Motivation in the Classroom” is naturally of particular interest to educators that are questioning the place of gold stars, stickers, and even grades in the classroom. Indeed, Kohn asserts that, “teachers and parents who care about learning need to do everything in their power to help students forget that grades exist”. Kohn admits that this is revolutionary thinking, but thinking that in the twenty years since Punished by Rewards was penned, is gaining increasing support. Other titles in this section are:

Chapter 10: Thank God It’s Monday: The Roots of Motivation it the Workplace

Chapter 12: Good Kids Without Goodies

 In the end, Kohn asks us to consider the following:

“The capacity to call into question one’s long-standing ways of thinking and acting, to reconsider an approach so ingrained as to be second nature, belongs at the top of any list of what makes a good parent or teacher. And Skinnerian dogma belongs at the top of any list of what needs careful reexamination”.

Will my teaching practice change based upon the reading of this book? Yes and no. Though I had not read Kohn before, I have always felt a certain sense of unease with practices that rely on extrinsic rewards and motivators to control student behavior. I have always tried to emphasize personal relationships and the building of an equitable, safe and supportive classroom culture; I’ve never tried to buy compliance through a piece of candy. I believe Kohn’s book should be essential reading for all educators, especially as we work towards re-envisioning education in America today. The statistics, of which there are plenty, paint a dire picture of a grossly inefficient educational system, one in which we are not supporting students to become engaged, motivated and life long learners. Something more fundamental than standardizing testing must occur. This is not to say that I am a dogmatic believer in Kohn’s viewpoint, rather, I am open to a continuation of this conversation, including reading relevant research that offers a different point of view while taking care to notice how rewards and punishments (or a lack of) impact my classroom. So, while my personal practice will continue to emphasize ways that I can support intrinsic motivation in my students, and has moved beyond a “gut feeling” to a pedagogic practice supported by research, my hope is that Kohn’s (and other’s) ideas will be examined in dynamic ways.

But it is not merely enough to hand pockets of teachers a book, demanding “read this and do it” then leaving it at that and expecting deeply engrained philosophies and practices to change. Change first requires an admission of necessity, beginning with an honest reexamining of why we do the things that we do. On-going conversation, study of relevant research and an action plan that includes the fingerprints of all involved (teachers, administrators, parents and even students) must be followed-up with professional development and supported district-wide, at all grade levels. As Kohn admits, “Following this advice requires a revolution in the way we think about school and deal with students. We will have to reconsider what learning is about, where it comes from, and whether we are serious about promoting it”. There will be proponents and oponets and that is a good thing; change without a spirited and vigorous conversation is authoritarian in nature and cannot be sustained long-term. While revolutionizing the way that education works in America is no small task, it seems that a nation with its roots built upon revolutionary beginnings should be up to the challenge.

For those interested in exploring Kohn’s ideas further, the following resources should prove helpful:

Alfie Kohn’s website complete with full-text searchable articles on his writings and lectures http://www.alfiekohn.org/articles.htm#null

Alfie Kohn’s blog entries hosted at The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alfie-kohn/

And for those of you who would like to hear the voice of opposition:

A particularly nasty blog entry complete with denigrating mocked up picture of Kohn http://doyle-scienceteach.blogspot.com/2010/08/my-two-beefs-with-alfie-kohn.html

Central Michigan LIFE online news agency http://www.cm-life.com/2010/03/26/alfie-kohns-presentation-lacked-facts-and-research-to-back-up-his-teaching-suggestions/

Number 2 Pencil is another blog critical of Kohn’s viewpoint http://www.kimberlyswygert.com/archives/001677.html


One thought on “Punished by Rewards: A Review

  1. EDU_6655 Peer Review of an Educational Material Assignment
    This review of an educational material (book, Punished by Rewards) provides a detailed overview of Alfie Kohn’s views on operant conditioning and behaviorism as it applies to education and in particular, the classroom. Kohn also discusses the model’s use in the workplace. The review clearly and honestly applies Kohn’s views to her own practice, particularly in the emphasis of intrinsic motivation. The review effectively expands and extends the book’s information and places it within the larger framework of educational change. The review concludes with further resources, including opponents of Kohn’s views.

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