Are rewards and promises of rewards - "carrots," in other words - really the motivators they're marketed to be? Are rewards and punishments the best way for children to learn and engage in socially acceptable behaviors?
Here's a scenario for you: students in a school are asked to bring in non-perishable food items for a food drive. I can totally get behind this: times are hard and food pantries are really running dry much faster than they have in a long time as more and more families need their services to keep their kids fed. As an incentive, students are told that whichever grade brings in the most food items will win a pizza party for the ENTIRE GRADE!!! *waving flags, big brass band sounds, maybe some cheerleaders*
Over the course of the next week or two, big paper graphs are hung across from the cafeteria where all students will be able to see the progress of their grade and the other grades as the piles of food add up. Every time a teacher or a volunteer gets a chance to count food items and update a grade's graph for the day, you can see the children's excitement building: OUR grade has the biggest bar! No, wait, the second grade is catching up! Oh, NO! But wait, we're still ahead! And look! We're catching up to that grade! All on their own, kids are excited about, well, they're excited about the bar graph and what it shows. To the younger kids, say up to first or second grade, it's a competition to see who will need to add another piece of paper, or who will have the highest bar, or beat the other grades in sheer quantity of boxes and cans, but to most of them from third grade upward, it shows......who's going to get a PIZZA PARTY!!!! *more waving flags and brass bands here* Very few kids are actually thinking, "Wow, this is great, we're going to be feeding a lot of people and families who really could use this food." (A great big "teachable moment" is winging its way out of the school and away from the children here.....)
The food drive is mentioned every morning and every afternoon as totals for each grade are added up and announced, with that pizza party incentive dangled at the end of Every. Single. Mention.
At the end of the food drive, it is declared that not one grade but TWO grades are joint winners, having tied with several hundred items brought in by each grade. And yes, the all-important PIZZA PARTY is mentioned yet again. There is some passing mention from time to time of how the food will be helping in the community, but this isn't emphasized at all. (Another teachable moment is escaping from the building at this point....)
So Pizza Party Day finally arrives. In one of the grades at least, a child with food allergies is unable to participate in the pizza party and sits on her own at the "nut-free tables" while the rest of her grade eats pizza and drinks fruit-flavored sugar water. Another child is taken home by her mother because, while her dairy intolerance isn't life-threatening, it will be inconvenient to be up all night with a tummy-ache. (Yeah, that would be mine; in case you've forgotten, I have other reasons more related to food intolerances in our family for cringing at pizza parties.)
At no time, to my knowledge, were the children really told what difference their contributions made to families who would benefit from them. At no time that I know of was a thank-you note from the food pantry shared with the students. I don't recall hearing any stories told to either the winning classes or the non-winners ("losers," perhaps?) of the impact their contributions have made to anyone else. As far as I know, every student in those two "winning" grades, regardless of whether they brought in a dozen boxes of stuffing and two bags of rice and beans or nothing at all, had a piece of pizza and fruit-flavored sugar-water, while in ALL the other grades, NO student, regardless of whether THEY brought in a dozen boxes of stuffing and two bags of rice and beans or nothing at all, had a piece of pizza and fruit-flavored sugar-water. A whole HERD of teachable moments has left the building here, STAMPEDED out of the building through the front door, AND all the children who did participate in this endeavor, both the "winners" and the "losers," have now been made just a little (or a lot?) less naturally altruistic as a result.
Yep, you heard me: these kids are now LESS likely to bring in food for a food drive for altruistic reasons and MORE likely to bring in food IF it will get them a tangible reward. It's no longer a case of "helping one's neighbor." It's now a case of "what's in it for me?" And THIS is one of the major problems I have with incentives and with rewards being used like this.
Don't believe me? That's okay, I don't mind. There are actual studies about this stuff. Author and educator Alfie Kohn has written about things like this in books like Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes; Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason; and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. (Do yourself a favor and click on those 3 separate links and at least read the condensed summary of their contents for now. I'll wait. :-)) He also has a fabulous website where you can see clips of his talks and interviews and read the research without even having to go to the library or bookstore to read the books in their entirety, although I would urge EVERY parent to read at least one, and EVERY educator to read at least these three if not more of his books.
To wit: in this article published in the journal Young Children in 2001, Kohn relates the following: "In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard "Good sharing!" or "I’m so proud of you for helping," they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult." Here's a short video of a talk given by Kohn about this. This isn't all theory and talking heads without hands-on looking-at; this has been formally studied, and the results have been duplicated. And this is the rewards! This is the "Catch them being good!" stuff they drilled into all of us at Teacher College and at in-service after in-service, for kids from preschool through high school. [Updated to add another Alfie Kohn clip, about 3 minutes in length, discussing innate altruism in children even in preschool. This clip is SO fascinating to me as a teacher and a parent - well-worth watching!]
In another video clip in which Alife Kohn is being interviewed on CBS, when his book Unconditional Parenting was still a new release, he hits on a significant remark about both rewards AND punishments at about 2:12 of this 4-minute video: "Punishments and rewards only get them [kids] to think about the consequences to themselves, with the result that they become more self-centered and less concerned about others' well-being."
Now, please do let me be clear. This is not meant to be a slam of well-meaning schools trying the best they know how, given what they've been taught over the years about conventional behavior management, to motivate kids to do good things. But that doesn't mean I agree with it. :-)
And that will serve, for now, as a jumping-off point for my feelings about punishment, after which I hope to try to tie it all together as best I can given the limitations of time and space. On another day. :-)
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Carrots and Sticks: Part the Second: Rewards
I've always been a musician and music teacher, which got me interested in how the brain works. When my first child was born with some neurological issues that we've since learned can be helped by our diet and lifestyle, we began to learn more.... and more... and now my head is spinning with the things I'm learning about how the Standard American Diet (and lifestyle!) not only was hurting us but how it impacts all of us. Frustrated with The System that assumes that One Size Fits All and that leadership (and therefore information and power) must come from the Top Down, I suppose I'm also just a teensy bit subversive. LOL (That and I'm into parenthetical asides.) I'm the author of My Very Own Crunchy and Progressive Parenting Blog and Scratchpad; my eldest is the primary author of Stuff I Wish My Teachers Knew (under construction). :-)