From both punishments and rewards, moreover, kids may derive a lesson of conditionality: I’m loved – and lovable – only when I do what I’m told. Of course, most parents would insist that they love their children no matter what. But, as one group of researchers put it in a book about controlling styles of parenting, “It is the child’s own experience of this behavior that is likely to have the greatest impact on the child’s subsequent development.” It’s the message that’s received, not the one that the adults think they’re sending, that counts.
It’s easier to concern yourself with teaching than with learning, just as it’s more convenient to say the fault lies with people other than you when things go wrong.
Exactly the same point applies in a school setting since educators, too, may use carrots and sticks on students. We may think we’re emphasizing the importance of punctuality by issuing a detention for being late, or that we’re making a statement about the need to be respectful when we suspend a student for yelling an obscenity, or that we’re supporting the value of certain behaviors when we offer a reward for engaging in them.
But what if the student who’s being punished or rewarded doesn’t see it that way? What if his or her response is, “That’s not fair!” or “Next time I won’t get caught” or “I guess when you have more power you can make other people suffer if they don’t do what you want” or “If they have to reward me for x, then x must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”
We protest that the student has it all wrong, that the intervention really is fair, the consequence is justified, the reward system makes perfect sense. But if the student doesn’t share our view, then what we did cannot possibly have the intended effect. Results don’t follow from behaviors but from the meaning attached to behaviors.
…when teachers these days are told to think about learning, it may be construed in behaviorist terms, with an emphasis on discrete, measurable skills. The point isn’t to deepen understanding (and enthusiasm) but merely to elevate test scores.
The same is true of teachers who are stringent graders. Their intent – to “uphold high standards” or “motivate students to do their best” – is completely irrelevant if a low grade is perceived differently by the student who receives it, which it almost always is. Likewise, if students view homework as something they can’t wait to be done with, it doesn’t matter how well-designed or valuable we think those assignments are. The likelihood that they will help students to learn more effectively, let alone become excited about the topic, is exceedingly low.
If teachers just do their thing and leave it up to each student to make sense of it -- “so that the child comes to feel, as he is intended to, that when he doesn’t understand it is his fault” (to borrow John Holt’s words) – then meaningful learning is likely to be in awfully short supply in those classrooms.
Kohn has been described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators -- as well as parents and managers -- across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the "Today" show and two appearances on "Oprah"; he has been profiled in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while his work has been described and debated in many other leading publications.
Kohn lectures widely at universities and to school faculties, parent groups, and corporations. In addition to speaking at staff development seminars and keynoting national education conferences on a regular basis, he conducts workshops for teachers and administrators on various topics. Among them: "Motivation from the Inside Out: Rethinking Rewards, Assessment, and Learning" and "Beyond Bribes and Threats: Realistic Alternatives to Controlling Students' Behavior." The latter corresponds to his book BEYOND DISCIPLINE: From Compliance to Community (ASCD, 1996), which he describes as "a modest attempt to overthrow the entire field of classroom management."
Kohn's various books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Hebrew, Thai, Malaysian, and Italian. He has also contributed to publications ranging from the Journal of Education to Ladies Home Journal, and from the Nation to the Harvard Business Review ("Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work"). His efforts to make research in human behavior accessible to a general audience have also been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Parents, and Psychology Today.
His many articles on education include eleven widely reprinted cover essays in Phi Delta Kappan: "Caring Kids: The Role of the Schools" (March 1991), "Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide" (Sept. 1993), "The Truth About Self-Esteem" (Dec. 1994), "How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education" (Feb. 1997), "Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform" (April 1998), "Fighting the Tests" (Jan. 2001), "The 500-Pound Gorilla" (Oct. 2002), "Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow" (April 2004), "Challenging Students -- And How to Have More of Them" (Nov. 2004), "Abusing Research" (Sept. 2006), and "Who's Cheating Whom?" (Oct. 2007).
Kohn lives (actually) in the Boston area with his wife and two children, and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn.org.