Book Report: Punished by Rewards

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn was well worth my time.  It is academic, a little heavy for bedtime reading, and written to convince you of something.  But Mr. Kohn convinces us both by his attitude and the voice of his writing and by the fact that almost nothing is said without evidence to back it up.

I’m obviously reviewing this book from a teacher’s perspective, but he equally addresses rewards in the corporate workplace and in parenting.  That really gives teachers a double dose, since we are concerned both with learning and with behavior.  Teachers should definitely read the parenting chapters as well!  There are two chapters that are just about incentives in the workplace, and I found them very interesting, but teachers and parents should feel free to skip them if your time is limited and you want to get the useful information out of the book.  I’m also reviewing this book at greater length than usual, for the benefit of my teacher friends that want some useful information but don’t have time to read a long, serious book right now!  🙂  It’s just my notes and reactions, but I hope you find it helpful.

If you are a teacher (or parent, I assume) reading this book, be prepared to continue your “business as usual” even as you become convinced that your actions might be wrong.  Alternatives do not appear until the final section of the book.

The first part of the book has the purpose of convincing the reader that rewards and punishments are not so great.

* Rewards and punishments are really the same thing.  You can be punished by not getting a reward, and rewarded by avoiding a punishment.  Both are all about power: a more powerful person getting a less powerful person to do something.  (So from here on, when you read something about rewards, assume it is true for punishments, and vice versa.)

* Rewards damage relationships.  Among students, they discourage collaboration, patience, generosity.  Between student and teacher, they send the message: “I want to see what a good job you can do,” rather than: “I am here to help you learn how to do this well.”

* Rewards ignore the cause of the problem.  “Do this so you’ll get a sticker,” does not address why they were doing something else.  It would be like a doctor giving a patient Tylenol for strep throat, which would ease the pain and fever for a couple of hours, instead of giving them an antibiotic, which would destroy the thing that is causing the pain and fever.  Rewards are the Tylenol, which doesn’t solve the problem, but just makes it less visible for awhile.

* Rewards discourage risk-taking.  They cause “unreflective expedience” — doing what it takes to get as many rewards as possible.  This is the opposite of learning a few important things deeply and well.

* Rewards send the message:  “This task is unpleasant.  You won’t like this.”

* Praise is simply another form of reward.  When you are inclined to praise, what they need is either feedback or relationship.

—Positive feedback:  Be descriptive.  (“You put spaces between your words today.  That makes it really easy for me to read your story.”)  Negative feedback:  Present a problem to be solved.  (“I’m having a hard time seeing where your words are.  I can show you how to put spaces between them to make your story easier to read.”)

—Relationship:  They need my positive regard to be unconditional.  They do not need to earn my love.  “I like the way Bobby is standing quietly in the hall,” is not a nice thing to say!  (If you work with me, you’ve heard me say this stuff…probably in the last 48 hours…this is SUCH a hard habit for me to break!)  (A better thing to say:  “If you’re not sure what to do right now, you can look at Bobby.  He is showing us one way to make sure he doesn’t interrupt the classes that are working.”  That way, it’s not about what I think about someone or their behavior, but about how we solve problems and take care of each other.  It’s still sort of praise-ish, especially if everyone is already standing quietly.  If possible, just don’t say anything.)  For the purpose of building a connection with Bobby, say things like, “I’m glad you’re here today!” and “Hey, how was that soccer game last night?”  Don’t just give him verbal sugar!  🙂

The second section addresses how rewards are used in the workplace, for learning, and for behavior.

* For learning:  We as teachers don’t choose whether or not grades are used with our students.  What we can do is make sure that evaluation holds no value in our conversations.  Grades and assessments should be feedback (see above), not currency.  By the time we are talking to our students about their grades, the value has already been achieved.

* For behavior:  Consider the goal.  We want kids who can make meaningful decisions, not simply obey.  We want kids who will make a thoughtful choice when there is no adult watching, ready to reward or punish.

—Sidenote:  They do not need to get “paid,” in the form of rewards or lack of punishment, for making a good choice.  What keeps you, as an adult, from robbing a bank?  The consequences?  People who rob banks don’t think they will get caught — They truly believe they will succeed, that there will be no consequences.  For you and I, mainly, we don’t rob banks because we believe it is wrong, because we are aware that our choices will affect others, because we are aware that the money we would steal isn’t ours.  We don’t need to be rewarded for not robbing a bank, because we have learned to make a meaningful decision about things like this.

Part 3…finally!  Beyond Rewards!  “So, if you don’t give them candy or prizes or stickers, what do you DO?”

* There is no trick or script.  How to respond depends on my goal as a teacher and the problem in front of me.  It is a way of looking at people and situations that guides decision making.

*  As the adult (teacher or parent), we need to understand the difference between structure and control.  Structure is helpful — it makes things predictable and calm.  Kids (and other people!) like to know what to expect, what will happen next.  Structure is information and love.  Control is the desire for power.  Control is looking for mindless obedience, a “do what I say right now” kind of goal.  I’m not yet ready to articulate this well, but teachers, I urge you to ponder structure versus control in your classroom.

* For learning:  Collaboration, content, choice…

—Collaboration:  “Ask your neighbor.  Help your neighbor.  Work together.”  As much as humanly possible, don’t make them work alone.  Encourage them to be each other’s teachers.

—Content:  This thing I want them to learn…Why is this awesome?  Why is this absolutely fantastic?  What is interesting, puzzling, funny, or fun about this thing we are doing?

—Choice:  The child decides as much as possible.  In what order are you going to do your reading stations?  How are you going to solve this math problem?  What are you going to write about today?  Within that comfy and secure structure, the child gets as much control as possible over his own world.

* For behavior:  Ah, the part everyone has been asking about!  What you want is information you can use tomorrow, right?  🙂

1.  Teacher and kids are problem solving together:  “Something has gone wrong.  What can we do about it?”  Teacher is not responding: “You’ve misbehaved, now here’s what I’m going to do to you.”  Solve the problem together, don’t inflict something on someone.

2.  Model the kinds of responses and attitudes you would like to see in the children.  How would you like the child to react when another child offends them in some way?  Let them see you respond that way when a child misbehaves.

3.  Discuss, discuss, discuss.  Have real conversations, where the kids have the right and the opportunity to say what they really think, not just answer the way they think you want them to.  Tell them what you think about specific caring and helpful behaviors.  Ask what they think.  Revisit problems that were addressed earlier in the day, and ask the kids how it turned out.  Make up problems and ask what someone could do about it.  Allow space for processing out loud.  (I love my daily class meetings for this!  Lots of days, I just make up a problem.  “I saw a 1st grader once who…..  What would you try if you had that problem?”  And everyone gets a turn to answer.)

4.  Attribute positive intent.  The child was not trying to make you angry.  She had a problem, and she tried to solve it the only way she knew how at that moment.  “You were mad (angry, sad, whatever) because ________________, and you didn’t know what to do, so you ____________.  (Wait while the child tearfully nods and suddenly is willing to look right in your eyes!)  Oh, my, that must have been hard.  Let’s ask our friends what you could try next time…”  You don’t have to be certain about the feeling or the reason.  The important part is that you tell them you can see they wanted something and didn’t know how to get it, or felt a certain way and didn’t know what to do, and you’re not upset and that the whole community is going to help them so they know what to do next time.  (Mostly, they won’t know next time.  It will take a bunch of times.  But it’s worth it.  This strategy is one of my favorite things ever.)


This book represents one puzzle piece that fits very well into how I run my classroom when I’m doing it the way I want to.  My method of community building and problem solving has evolved for the last eight years, before I ever laid eyes on this book.  I’ll write a post soon about what this really looks like in my classroom.  I’m not perfect, far from it!  I don’t always do it the way I want to.  I fall back into “I’ll give you this if you do that.”  I get tired and I get irritable with the kids, and I say things like “You know what to do, how come you can’t just do it???”  And “I’m not going to pick you if you’re not sitting quietly.”  Or “I don’t have time for questions now, just do it, please.”  Eeesh.  I get distracted by academics, and other adults watching me teach, and the urgency of the schedule, and sometimes I don’t want to take time to stop teaching and solve a problem as a school family.  I spent the entire school year last year pretty much forgetting everything I believe about classroom community, the poor kids.  But I have also had periods of days and weeks in a row most years where I didn’t solve a single problem, because I had set up a caring community and invested time in making thoughtful kids.  Imagine the power of a teacher who can just teach, and the kids solve their own problems?  A classroom where the teacher and students love to be there?  On those days, the schedule doesn’t feel urgent, and I’d welcome the President and First Lady into my classroom to watch me teach, because I can really be on my game with the academics.  (I’m pretty fearless when it comes to being watched, but let’s not make that one a reality, okay?)  Those are the days when it’s fun!  Which leads me to one last point:

5.  Let go of your need for justice.  They don’t need to be punished just for the sake of fairness.  Embrace grace, compassion, forgiveness.  If you can reach that sweet spot where everyone in the room, teacher and students, feel really awesome about each other, they’ll do whatever you ask them to do.  I promise.  I’ve been there, and it is not easy, but it is awesome!

“Teachers who have moved toward creating a caring community in the classroom, a place where children work together to make decisions, sometimes say they would quit rather than go back to a program of behavior modification and rule enforcement.”  (p. 256)

That’s me!  I would quit teaching, without question, without hesitation, before relying on candy jars, treasure boxes, taking away minutes of recess, etc.  It is just too awesome the other way!


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