Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Should students be paid to learn?

The National Journal posted the question "should students be paid to learn?" to their panel of insiders. Here is Alfie Kohn's response:

Alfie Kohn (www.alfiekohn.org), author of Punished by Rewards andThe Schools Our Children Deserve, submitted the following:

Rewards, like punishments, can produce only one thing: temporary obedience. What they can never do is help kids become more effective or enthusiastic learners. In fact, a huge body of research demonstrates that exactly the opposite is true: Dangling carrots in front of people is actually counterproductive.

What the data show, more specifically, is that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. To understand why, it helps to realize that the meaningful question isn’t “Will rewards motivate kids?” but “What kind of motivation do rewards create?” And the answer is: “A motivation to get more rewards.” Unfortunately, that tends to reduce their motivation to learn.

Psychologists distinguish between intrinsic motivation, in which the learning itself is seen as meaningful, and extrinsic motivation, in which the learning becomes just a means to an end. That end could be money, grades, stickers, or any other incentive. More than 75 studies have shown that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren't just different; they tend to be inversely related.

Thus, for example, kids who are led to focus on grades -- the reward of an A – are apt to think in a more superficial fashion, prefer easier tasks, and find learning less interesting when you compare them to kids in classrooms where grades are absent or invisible. Paying kids for good grades is basically a reward for a reward. It doubles the damage.

The bottom line is that dangling incentives in front of children is a way of doing things to them. It’s a form of sugar-coated control. In the long run people react badly to being controlled, even if they like the goody itself. In fact, the bigger or more desirable the reward, the more damage it tends to do, according to the research.

But in the case of initiatives like Fryer’s, the news is even worse. To this point I’ve just been addressing the method: How do we get kids to do something? My contention is that, apart from the inherently objectionable nature of carrot-and-stick control, rewards are ineffective at best (for producing anything beyond temporary compliance) and harmful at worst – even if the goal is laudable. But in these programs, the goal isn’t to help students love learning or think more deeply. The goal is just to raise scores on bad tests to make the adults look good. Standardized exams, as I and others have explained elsewhere, measure what matters least. We even have studies that demonstrate a statistically significant negative correlation between deep thinking, on the one hand, and results on a range of standardized tests, on the other. So what you’ve got with these cash-for-scores programs is a flawed means married to a terrible objective – the worst of both worlds.

One reason adults are so fond of reward programs is that they’re spared from having to ask why kids have to be bribed in the first place. What would it take to create a school where kids want to show up? How can we nourish kids’ natural curiosity and desire to learn? What does it say about homework that children dread doing it and rarely find it of value? To answer those questions, to make school meaningful for students, takes time and talent and courage. But you don’t need any of those things to toss kids a goodie when they jump through your hoops. Such programs are powerfully conservative in that they discourage us from changing the status quo.

Finally, four quick responses to arguments offered by proponents:

Q. Shouldn’t we do anything to help kids who are desperately poor and trapped in bad schools?

A. We should do what’s likely to help. Bribing students to raise standardized test scores does absolutely nothing to address the real problems – social, economic, or educational. To the extent that it leads kids to see academics as just a tedious prerequisite to snagging some cash, it devalues the very thing we want to help them become excited about – and therefore worsens their plight.

Q. Shouldn’t we wait for evidence and see if these programs work?

A. First, there have been enough studies of similar incentive programs so that it’s pretty clear by now that they don’t work – certainly not in the long run, and certainly not with respect to outcomes that matter. Second, there are many more studies of rewards in general – and an impressive body of theoretical work in the field of motivational psychology -- that provide the context for understanding why such programs can’t work.

Q. Why not use rewards to jump-start kids’ interest, then fade them out so facilitate a transition to interest in the learning itself?

A. If only it were so simple! Unfortunately, as soon as you introduce an extrinsic inducement – a reward as a reason for doing something -- you affect the way students look at learning, at the people offering the reward, and at their own reasons for doing what they do. It then becomes more difficult to promote – or recover – intrinsic motivation than it was to begin with.

Q. Lots of affluent kids get financial rewards from their parents. Why not offer the same to inner-city kids?

A. First, I’ve never seen a speck of data to support this rather dubious claim about the supposed pervasiveness of financial incentives in the suburbs. Second, even if we grant that some rich parents are bribing their kids to bring home high grades or test scores, how is that an argument for doing it to poor kids, too, if it doesn’t make sense for anyone? Third, it’s one thing for individual parents to use these tactics on their children, but something else again for schools and public officials to officially endorse this kind of manipulation.

Also, notice that the most controlling classroom management and school discipline programs – carrots and sticks to enforce obedience – are far more likely to be imposed on low-income kids of color. That’s the real context in which to understand this latest version of “do what we say and we’ll give you a doggie biscuit.” If anything, given the structural and attitudinal obstacles facing poor children, we should be going out of our way to support their autonomy and critical sensibilities, working with them to solve problems. This kind of program does exactly the opposite and amounts to a plan for doing things to them so they’ll do what they’re told.


  1. How can we expect our children to respect the value of an education, no matter its incantation when we the public has such high levels of disdain for they system and educators. I agree that the system of education needs change and reform, but it's not a flawed as many publicize. Getting rid of high stakes testing would probably be your best measure, but that will never happen because too many people are profiting from this system. Too change our educational system we must change our culture. Our culture of get rich quick, making it big, bling bling attitudes. Most students see education as a burden and a requirement and not the extreme privilege that it is. Instead of dealing with those attitudes, we look to entertain them. When immigrant students come from other parts of the world, they realize the privilege they have access to, and they don't take it for granted. Even in less than stellar classrooms. But we teach our students that they must always be in the most amazing conditions to learn. So when the environment is not "perfect" they shut down, because we tacitly give them permission to. It's the most extreme sense of privilege gone wild. I tell my own children and students that nothing in your life is going to be perfect, but how do you get the most out of whatever situation you are in. I teach them to survive in certain conditions, and how they can use their own will and abilities to fill the gaps. They are capable. WE just have to hold them ACCOUNTABLE. And they are the only people we have yet to discuss accountability about in this debate about education thus far.

  2. Alfie Kohn has the right answer and gives the right reasons. I couldn't have said better myself.

  3. I am beginning to realize more and more how true all of this is - and I know it because it is exactly how I was raised and what went wrong for me.

    Thank you for the clear-headed reasoning!


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