Monday, September 25, 2006

On Rewards

Maria Montessori did not come up with a lot of the 'givens' in the Montessori Method because that's just how she thought things should be.

She was at heart a scientist and yet a product of her time. She fully expected children to want little prizes for good work and behaviour. But she found that in each of the early classrooms she had set up, the children just did not want prizes/rewards. She said some appeared even insulted that they should be given a prize of some sort and that one boy, whose focus was on his work, cared so little for the reward the teacher had given him that when it fell to the floor, he let one boy being punished have it. The boy who was being punished (the child who had not yet learned to really work) enjoyed the prize much more than the boy who had 'earned' it. Rewards did not lead the children to better behaviour and work; suitable work led them to better behaviour and work.

More modern research into the topic has revealed that rewards are not all they're cracked up to be. While they became a huge part of child-rearing, due to the likes of B. F. Skinner and others, they have not proven to be of true benefit. Punished by Rewards is a parent and teacher must-read, imho. He goes through study after study on the negative effects of rewards, and much of the studies are not even about kids. I recall his account of a business place that set up a reward system for the personnel. It almost destroyed the company.

Rewards, as Debbie wrote in her blog ( , have the focus turned toward the rewards and not on the actual intended goal. The motivation becomes external, not internal, and so the child is not actually motivated to read or do whatever it is we want him to do if his primary focus is on the reward. The total opposite can actually happen. Kohn relates in Punished by Rewards that in one little experiment done, kids were rewarded for the amounts of a particular drink they consumed. A control group was monitored as well, receiving no rewards. At the end of the time span, those who were rewarded for the amount consumed stopped consuming that beverage. This does not surprise me. I've known of children in schools who read only for the rewards, even if they did read on their own beforehand. Once the rewards were gone, their desire to read was gone. The business mentioned above had less productivity. Why? Because everybody was in competition with everyone else and trying to be #1. In the focus on the prize, they lost their creativity and willingness to work together.

So how come my 'sticker chart' mentioned in another post is not a reward chart? Because it's got nothing to do with, "Oh, you'll get one sticker for every 15 minutes you read!" That is an attempt at manipulating a child into doing what I want him to do. My goal is to help him stretch himself, see what he's really doing and hopefully aim to improve upon it. Seeing things really helps him. Keeping a chart will let him see how much he actually gets done. Do the stickers, or whatever he (note) chooses to mark the chart make the whole thing fun? Yes! But it's got nothing to do with winning stickers and everything to do with making the chart visually appealing and the process of recording a little more interesting. He does not get a prize if he earns x amount of stickers. He will not have me saying, "Remember: if you want another sticker for your chart, you're going to have to read more!" Will he become more focused on the stickers? I don't know. I hope not. If so, I'll have to keep bringing him back to the whole point: the chart is for him to assess his reading amount and how far he'd like to go. I would frankly be happier having him not read at all than having him reading a whole ton simply for earning stickers or something else. And frankly, how would you prove that an underachieving child had actually read that amount and not just spent the time looking at books?

Which brings me to something else: reward systems can definitely create an atmosphere where certain children will feel the need to cheat in order to get their reward. If they do not feel they can get as far as they want to without cheating, they'll give up or they'll cheat. It's a negative atmosphere, one that doesn't have its focus on helping the child feel better about himself and his abilities, but on pleasing some system outside himself.

I'm going to put one last thing in here: B. F. Skinner was one of the major proponents of behaviourism, which is a fancy word about how external stimulses (punishments and rewards) are what motivate people's behaviours. If you can give the right rewards and punishments, people will behave in the way you want them to. Skinner is someone I learned about in my (non-Montessori) teacher training and it wasn't really said that what he was suggesting was a bad idea. After all, how many classrooms (non-Montessori, of course!) have reward or punishment systems set up? But I've since learned that Skinner was a man I would consider somewhat frightening. He believed so much in behaviourism that he felt everybody was simply a product of the stimuluses around them. (He appeared on a TV show for an interview and essentially said that it was the stimuluses of his life that had brought him there.) There is no true free choice or anything like that, no means of truly making a choice because your choices (which are a form of behaviour) are already predetermined by the stimuluses you've had in your life. He didn't say that in so many words (at least, not that I've read, although I wouldn't be surprised if he had), but that's the full meaning of it. He also believed that his system could be used for social engineering, meaning the government or specific groups should use the techniques to improve society. Essentially, some people should purposefully set about to manipulate society to behave the way that group wants. (insert wide-eye scared face here!)

So, if you are using rewards with your children, think about the reason for it, think about the aims of behaviourism, and whether you really feel it's the best course to take. And read Punished by Rewards! :D

1 comment:

Michelle said...

I've read 'Punished by Rewards' and I agree totally. It's easy for me to forget, though, so this has been a good reminder. Thanks!