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Should We Encourage Learning Through Rewards?


Educators have long wondered how they can get their students to learn more efficiently and to do well on the tests that are placed in front of them. And when the goal of education is efficiency in the classroom and desired outcomes on testing, the natural place to look to pull the levers necessary to achieve those goals is the children. By focusing on the children, however, educators take their eyes off of the most important factors (inhibitors) of learning, and that is the adults in the room.

Paul Chance, a psychologist who wrote the article The Rewards of Learning in The Phi Delta Kappan (Nov., 1992), argues that not only are rewards helpful in getting kids to learn effectively, but that they are necessary. He starts his essay off with an anecdote of E. L. Thorndike, the founder of educational psychology, attempting to draw lines that were four-inches long, each time with his eyes closed. Over the course of several days he drew 3,000 lines, and at the end of the experience he found that his ability to draw four-inch long lines did not improve, hence laying out the argument that some external force (teacher) needs to be there to reinforce the learning process of the student; and that reinforcement should come through rewards (and punishments).

Alfie Kohn, an independent scholar who trumpets progressive education wrote a response article in The Phi Delta Kappan called Rewards Versus Learning: A Response to Paul Chance (Jun., 1993). In it he attacks the notions that rewards are effective or warranted. He acknowledges upfront that rewards (and punishments) might be able to get people to perform a desired task in the moment, but immediately argues that such actions cause far more harm to the student in the long term.

Chance acknowledges that utilizing rewards for learning carries with it certain risks, such as teachers knowingly or unknowingly rewarding poor or undesirable behaviors. The biggest risk he acknowledged was the potential that rewards may in fact undermine interest in learning, but threw in the caveat that it was better to force a student to learn something even if they lose interest in it in the long-term than to hope that they’d learn the material some other way. Chance then argued that the type of reward offered could mitigate the problem of lost interest and motivation in learning. He offers up task-contingent and performance-contingent rewards as the type of rewards that actually thwart learning, but then introduces the idea of success-contingent rewards as reinforcements that actually increase learning.

Kohn argues that rewards, no matter the type of rewards, are immoral, ineffective and undermine learning. The reason he considers rewards immoral is because they are controlling in nature, and end up treating children like circus animals or pets that are given treats to perform tasks in order to entertain others. He takes issue with the notion that by using carrots (and sticks) that we will be able to train children to learn what we expect of them, instead suggesting that it is preferable to persuade children to see the value in learning something so that they do it of their own free will in a manner that is much more compassionate and meaningful.

The reason Kohn believes rewards are ineffective is because they compel children to behave in a certain manner for some short-term gain, and that at the end of the day using extrinsic rewards fail to change children’s underlying behaviors and motivations.  When student’s underlying behaviors and motivations are oriented toward rewards as opposed to learning for the sake of personal development, the acquisition of knowledge or mastery of a given topic, the end result is oftentimes worse performance and less learning.

The reason Kohn believes rewards undermine learning mirror some of the risks acknowledge by Chance. However, Kohn doesn’t argue that some of the damage that rewards cause are acceptable, nor does he argue that some rewards (success-contingent) are inherently positive. The fact that rewards are controlling and ineffective lead him to the belief that reduced interest in learning doesn’t only affect performance at that time, but that it has debilitating long-term effects on an individual’s education or learning. As he said, it turns “learning from an end into a means”, and when children learn because of rewards (or punishments) the end result is an individual who will likely shy away from experiences in which they may fail and who is much less likely to seek out their own learning opportunities in the future.

Kohn provides a much more compelling argument than Chance, as the goal of education shouldn’t be to simply get children to perform well on tests, but instead to perform well in life. Performing well in life entails being willing and able to seek out learning opportunities to improve one’s understanding of and position in the world. Going back to Chances anecdote about drawing four-inch lines, his argument is that children need reinforcement to learn how to improve their lines. However, what he fails to consider is not handicapping children by forcing them to draw with their eyes closed which makes them rely on external reinforcement to improve. In a constructivist approach to education, children would be able to open their eyes, and improve based on most people’s intrinsic desire to do better.


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1 Response to " Should We Encourage Learning Through Rewards? "

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