Thursday, January 1, 2009


Both Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan and DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee have backs bribing students to work better.

Pifactory - I teach in a very kind school. It's quiet. Teachers don't shout. It is supportive. And genuinely sensitive to the needs of its students. But, like in thousands of others, the gorillas, elephants and emperors in their behaviorist clothes stalk the corridors and classrooms.

Our latest, and well-meaning, attempt to unwittingly mobilize an elephant in aid of our students came with the printing of hundreds of little green bucks. Whenever we catch a student doing good, they get a buck and bucks means prizes. . . or something.

Millions of similar fraudulent bucks, or their sticker-star-grade equivalents, have been printed and doled out in classrooms in tens of thousands of other schools all over America.

Not quite on a par with the real bucks for good grades (up to $4,000 a year) proposed by President-elect Barack Obama's nomination for Education Secretary Arne Duncan in his September 2008 plan. But behaviorist rewards nonetheless.

After much initial enthusiasm, the modest initiative seems to have fizzled rather than be trampled. . . No one was sure exactly what the bang was you got for your buck. And that was the first question asked by students. Not, you note, what was it you wanted us to permanently change in our behavior?

Pretend bucks traded for compliance is not a new idea. Two centuries ago, in the first decade of the 1800s the first public school in New York City had tried giving out tickets (exchangeable for toys) to students who did as they were instructed. This early behavior modification experiment in bribery was abandoned because, said the trustees, the use of rewards "fostered a mercenary spirit" and "engendered strifes and jealousies". . .

[Alfie] Kohn. . . gives a blow-by-blow account of the research over decades that has similarly concluded that rewards (and punishments) - much bigger than a few good-humored pretend bucks - do not make sense. They not only don't work, but defeat the very purpose for which they ostensibly are frequently being used.

The risks of rewards include:

- Rewards and punishments are not opposites, just two sides of the same coin,

- The more rewards are used, the more they are needed,

- Rewards don't lead to lasting change,

- Rewards serve the interests of those giving the reward, not necessarily those receiving the reward,

- Rewards avoid asking about the reasons behind the need for rewards,

- Students working for a reward, do what is necessary to get the reward and no more.

- Rewards motivate. . . they motivate people to get rewards,

- Rewards are experienced as controlling, students recoil from anything that appears to diminish their autonomy,

- Consequences, positive reinforcement, tough love and student choices are just other ways of packaging behaviorist rewards and punishments,

And most alarmingly the research reveals. . .

- The more you want a reward, the more you may come to dislike whatever you have to do get it,

- Extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation,

- Extrinsic motivators, rewards and punishments, are most dangerous when offered for something we want students to want to do. . .

As Kohn warns: "If a teacher stops using extrinsic motivators tomorrow, dumps the stickers and stars and certificates in the garbage can and puts the grade book away, students are not going to leap out of their seats cheering, 'Hooray! Now we can be intrinsically motivated!'"

But at least without an 800-pound gorilla in the classroom there'll be the room to start to focus on the task at hand: helping students find and construct their own meanings on the road to learning.


At January 2, 2009 5:38 AM, Anonymous Mairead said...

Well Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle, didn't these people ever read the basic literature for f's sake?

Kohn is correct: the destructive effects of external "point" (gift) motivators on high-order functioning have been widely known for at least 40 years (longer, really, but Behaviorism's hegemony made it hard to say so).

At January 2, 2009 10:01 AM, Anonymous A pay check is an extrinsic reward. said...

I say we use Keller Breland's method and clicker-train all the little buggers. Then they can entertain us with their tricks at the I.Q. Zoo.


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