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

I’ve long had an aversion to the “If you do x, you’ll get y” approach to teaching when it comes to food, treats, stickers, etc.. But when Kohn digs into the notion of grades or even praise as part of his argument against rewards, I was, well, quite challenged. I felt like he was shining a spotlight on my practice. I’m certainly more careful with praise than I used to be (thank you, Carol Dweck) and though I’ve had my share of grade-grubbers in my time, I never really thought about grades as a reward. Still, I’m currently at a school that wants to downplay their importance, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. I think it’s the right direction. The praise portion is tough. How and what do you say to a student in order to recognize effort? accomplishment? I’ve gotten better at asking questions than making statements. And I’ve tried to get out of the habit of saying things like, “I need you to do this.”

In terms of behavior, I’m pretty much on board with my understanding of Kohn’s argument (as is my school). Involve the students. Seize teachable moments. Restore and repair rather than punish.

My hackles definitely got up during Kohn’s anti-pay-for-performance diatribes (and he can lazily slip into hyperbole when he doesn’t seem to want to make an argument). While I grant that his forecasts can prove true (“I don’t like you, so you’re not getting a bonus”), I was part of an effort to administer a pay-for-performance scheme. I know that we tried very hard to calibrate our expectations and to build in checks and balances to try to make sure our results were reasonable and consistent. Since I was involved at the very beginning of the program, emotions and questions were running high, but with some consistency, I imagine it will settle into an effective system and that the staff will get used to its existence.

A good, challenging book. I wrote a lot of notes in the margins – in support of the author and to argue with him.

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