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What Do Rewards Teach?

In light of the recent wave of schools trying cash-incentive programs to motivate students, it's only fair to point back to a commentary written by Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of these kinds of programs and of testing in general.

Kohn explains that what is truly important in the classroom is not what the teacher does, but how it is perceived by the student. So if a teacher delivers a well-constructed lecture on a certain subject, no matter how good the lecture is, what really counts is what students gain from it. Likewise, if a teacher rewards a student in the classroom, what's most important is how that reward is perceived by the student.

We may think we’re emphasizing the importance of punctuality by issuing a detention for being late, or that we’re making a statement about the need to be respectful when we suspend a student for yelling an obscenity, or that we’re supporting the value of certain behaviors when we offer a reward for engaging in them.

But what if the student who’s being punished or rewarded doesn’t see it that way? What if his or her response is, “That’s not fair!” or “Next time I won’t get caught” or “I guess when you have more power you can make other people suffer if they don’t do what you want” or “If they have to reward me for x, then x must be something I wouldn’t want to do”?

We protest that the student has it all wrong, that the intervention really is fair, the consequence is justified, the reward system makes perfect sense. But if the student doesn’t share our view, then what we did cannot possibly have the intended effect.

Kohn delivers an interesting take on the view that motivating kids with incentives is fundamentally wrong, which is food for thought as more schools begin to explore to these kinds of programs.

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