Punished by Rewards, The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

This book by Alfie Kohn strikes at the heart of the conventional rewards system that is entrenched in our schools and our society.

Although rewards require little effort to administer and yield immediate results, they do not address the underlying problems that will remain unresolved in the long run.  Kohn identifies five key problems with the use of rewards: 

• The rewards system is basically used as a controlling tool to elicit 
desirable behavior.  Students who feel that their teachers control them will not develop a natural incentive to study.

The rewards system intensifies the imbalance of power, and thus increases the distance between teachers and students. Knowing that their teachers are always judging their work will generate feelings of anxiety and stress, thus lowering the quality of their performance.

• The use of the rewards system does not address the underlying causes of the problem.

• The rewards system undermines creativity and innovation by rewarding individuals who conform to expected standards of behavior.

• Ultimately, the rewards system destroys people’s enjoyment of activities and replaces intrinsic motivation with extrinsic motivation. Essentially, when people are intrinsically motivated to perform tasks, they do not need to be given a reward for doing so.
According to Kohn, even praise may have a negative impact on children’s performances. Fundamentally, praise cultivates the children’s dependency on the opinions of others. Children who are overpraised perform in order to please their parents or other adult figures. In the long run, they lose their sense of identity and intrinsic motivation for performing activities they once enjoyed.
In contrast to the tacit control imposed by the rewards system, the three Cs – content, collaboration and choice – provide alternative guidelines for dealing with non-compliance of children. First, educators and other adults must consider whether the content is developmentally appropriate. Such content should meet the needs and

interests of the children. Second, collaboration should be encouraged, thereby empowering children, and encouraging their involvement in the learning experience. Finally, choice is a component that enables children to take part in the decision-making process.
Ultimately, Kohn has painted a powerful vision of children who will grow up to become responsible and intrinsically motivated adults. Their self-image will not be dependent on rewards and praises from authority figures. Rather, they will possess the passion and strength necessary for their vocation in life. This future, however, can only be realized if the current rewards system is replaced by an alternative perspective that truly nurtures the growth of young children.