Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn

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Who would’ve thought that offering rewards is a horrible way to motivate someone to learn? In Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn, a well-known proponent of self-directed education, makes just this argument—and just may change everything you think you know about prizes, trophies, gold stars—even grades.

Key Takeaways

  • Behaviorism—the idea that human behavior can and should be controlled through externally motivating factors—is our cultural paradigm, and its legitimacy goes largely unquestioned. But this is not the only way to motivate kids to learn, and certainly not the best one.
  • Rewards and punishments are sometimes effective, but mostly just in the short-term; long-term, they often backfire. There are five main reasons for this: They manipulate. People don’t like to be manipulated or told what to do. Secondly, they rupture relationships. People begin to do nice things for rewards rather than out of true altruism and caring. Thirdly, they don’t get to the root of the problem. They don’t help us discover why the “bad” behavior or lack of desire to learn is there in the first place. Fourthly, they discourage risk-taking. They cause people to not want to fail. Fifth and finally, and, most importantly: They cause people to lose interest in a task for its own sake. Learning, one of the most natural pleasures of the human experience, is no longer considered fun.
  • The author tells the story of an old man being harassed by some children who decided to pay them to tease him. After he gradually lowered the payment, they lost interest in the activity and stopped.
  • Learning declines when learning activities are extrinsically motivated.
  • Verbal praise is one of the most-used rewards, and one of the most problematic. The reasons for this include: First, it signals low ability. When kids are praised for something they did easily, or something they did poorly, it makes them feel they’re being treated like a child or an idiot. Second, it causes praise addiction. Praising a child’s intelligence, for example, causes them to create an unhealthy identification with their intelligence that makes them afraid to fail, especially in front of others. Third, it reduces interest in a task. Kids who are overly praised for a particular activity assume the praise is meant to get them to do something they wouldn’t do otherwise. This assumption causes them to no longer desire to perform the activity.
  • Praise is a way to keep children dependent on us. It’s a shortcut—an external motivator that appears internal. Therefore, when you praise, praise specific tasks or effort. Don’t praise intelligence or skill in general. Make praise as specific as possible.
  • Avoid phony praise.
  • Avoid praise that sets up a competition.
  • This challenge also applies to the workplace. We think we can motivate people externally, but we can’t. We can only set up conditions in which their inner drive/motivation is able to thrive.
  • How can we do this? Studies support using the 3 C’s: ollaboration (give them good people to work with); content (give them meaningful work); and choice (give them autonomy).

About the Author

Alfie Kohn is an American author, speaker, and educational theorist known for his work on progressive education, parenting, and the critique of traditional schooling practices. Kohn holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Brown University and a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. He has been a prominent voice in the field of education for several decades and has written extensively on topics such as motivation, discipline, standardized testing, and the role of rewards and punishments in learning.

One of Kohn’s central ideas is the concept of “unconditional parenting” and the belief that children thrive when they are supported and respected rather than controlled or manipulated. He challenges conventional wisdom and encourages parents and educators to focus on fostering intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, and a love of learning in children.

Through his books, including Punished by Rewards, The Schools Our Children Deserve, and Unconditional Parenting, Kohn presents thought-provoking arguments and research-based insights into the effects of various educational strategies on students’ well-being and learning outcomes. He challenges conventional wisdom and offers alternative approaches grounded in research and progressive educational philosophies.

As a speaker and presenter, Kohn has delivered lectures and workshops to educators, parents, and policymakers worldwide, sharing his ideas and engaging in discussions about transforming education to better serve the needs of all students.


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