1st July, 2016

Are rewards good for learners?

By Rachael S

‘The Old, Iron Fence’ is a metaphor to warn against unintended consequences and was first told by the educationalist Alfred Kohn. Kohn argued that rewards, whilst pleasing initially, can lead children away from the ultimate goal of learning.

Let’s take the story of the old man and the children. The children originally acted on their own instincts and internal desires, hitting the railings because they enjoyed doing so. As soon as a ‘reward’ was given for the completion of the task, however, the children’s motivation became external and when that external motivator was removed they were left without any reason to continue.

If I, for example, tell you I will give you £50 if you run 5km, once you have completed this and received your money, would you be more or less likely to run the 5km again if there was no monetary reward? Compare this to the same scenario but with the external reward removed. If I encouraged you to run 5km and, upon completing the run, asked you how you felt about yourself, how would you feel about running again? Whatever the answer to this latter question, your reply would be based on your own internal emotions, rather than an external motivator.

Sure, rewards are great for inspiring short-term effort. Undoubtedly, more of you would agree to run 5km if I offered you £50 for doing so than if I offered you nothing. Whether such rewards come in the form of bonuses at work, praise from clients or points in games, they can all work to encourage a quick gain in productivity or engagement and have their places in these environments.

The problem with using rewards in schools is that such external motivators can be detrimental to more long-term aims. We must ask ourselves what it is that we are trying to foster in our children? Are we seeking to help them achieve in the short-term or to enjoy learning in the long-term?

Whether using stickers, gold stars, stamps, or even basic praise, tutors and teachers must avoid seeking short-term objectives and focus instead on the intrinsic qualities they are seeking to build in their pupils. Research has found that long-term thinking will not be shaped by trying to mould short-term behaviours. When the rewards are no longer provided, or the praise is not forthcoming, pupils will not continue the endeavours if their own personal commitment is lacking.

In fact, in many instances, rewards can have a negative impact on short-term aims as well. Many studies have found that those offered rewards are actually outperformed by those who are not - results that stand for all age groups and in a variety of settings. The reward can become a distraction from the enjoyment on offer from the activity in and of itself.

Innovation is also found to be more limited when rewards are promised. Those offered rewards for completing a task often choose to stick to more guaranteed successes rather than risk missing the rewards offered by selecting riskier approaches. This also goes for the willingness to attempt more difficult tasks: rewards encourage the pursuit of rewards, not a risk of failure.

We accept that many internal motivators will often be mingled with external ones - a love of running can also be a love of looking fit, or being associated with the sport, for example. It is certainly not easy to separate the two. All we ask, however, is that tutors, teachers and parents remember that, as Kohn suggests, punishments and rewards are ‘two sides of the same coin’ and we can easily slip from one to the other if we are not careful.

The aim for all educators should be to empower children, by breeding an enjoyment of learning and a desire to fulfil their own ambitions. If we can achieve this, then grades will surely follow.

To read more on this subject visit: http://www.alfiekohn.org/

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