Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A short conversation with...Alfie Kohn @alfiekohn

I would like to thank Alfie Kohn for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview series. Dr. Kohn's work has influenced me the most as an educator. Thank you very much, Dr. Kohn.

Alfie Kohn

1.What would you say to a teacher that says, "rewards work in my

I’d ask two questions: What do you mean by “work”? And at what cost? Rewards, like punishments, can sometimes be effective at eliciting temporary compliance. What they can never do is help people to develop a commitment to whatever behavior they engaged in. You can’t bribe kids into thinking deeply, enjoying the learning itself, or becoming responsible or caring people. In fact, the reliance on rewards -- what one pair of researchers calls “control through seduction” -- is more likely to be counterproductive rather than merely ineffective. It tends to undermine students’ interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing, which means they become less likely to want to read (or to help other people, or whatever) than they were earlier. Treating kids like pets -- giving them the equivalent of a doggie biscuit for doing whatever the person with the power happens to want -- is not only disrespectful; it’s virtually guaranteed to backfire. It’s a way of doing things to kids, and ultimately there’s no substitute for working with kids if we want them to become proficient learners and decent people.

2.Alfie, could you please share a few thoughts on year end awards
ceremonies where only a few are chosen to receive an award?

The problem with awards is twofold: First, they’re extrinsic inducements, so, as I say, they’re likely to reduce kids’ intrinsic motivation to do whatever we’ve recognized them for having accomplished. Second, what distinguishes an award from a reward is that the former is set up as a competition: The recognition is made artificially scarce so that if I get an award, that reduces or even eliminates the chance that you will.

Here’s the dilemma: Either the awards ceremony is a joke to kids, or it's taken seriously. If it's a joke, why do it? But if it's taken seriously, it can do real harm. It's not hard to see how resentful and demoralized the losers often become. (Definition of an awards assembly: an event that instantly turns most people present into losers.) But perceptive people can see that even the winners lose: They come to see themselves as worthy only to the extent they’ve defeated others (a recipe for neurosis), they come to see everyone else as obstacles to their own success (which destroys any possibility of creating a sense of community and caring in the school), and they come to see the learning as just a prerequisite for getting that public pat on the head.

3. Many teachers have been known to say the following, "This class is
not a democracy; it is a dictatorship." How can this attitude hurt
the learning of students?

Dictatorships never benefit anyone other than the dictator. Psychologically speaking, people thrive when they participate in making decisions about the things that affect them. Morally speaking, I believe people have a right to participate to the extent it’s practical to do so -- which is to say, a right not to be subject to unnecessary control. This is even more important in the case of children, since we want them to learn to be responsible decision-makers. And you learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.

That doesn’t mean kids can do whatever they want, or that their status is equivalent to that of the teacher, or that children have the same capacity to choose responsibly at age 6 that they do at age 16. But just because a pure democracy may be impractical in a classroom doesn’t justify a dictatorship; it obliges us to see how close we can get to the democratic end of the continuum. When teachers write this off as “impractical” or “utopian,” they may think they’re telling us about the inability of kids to handle choices but I’d argue they’re really telling us about their own need for control.

Alfie Kohn's Homepage


  1. Wow... you have truly interviewed some "Linchpins" with this series. Well done, buddy!

    I am just glad that I sent in my responses before Pink and Kohn!

    PS - Thanks for asking about the awards ceremony!

  2. The most successful way I have found to explain to adults the detriment of rewards (and punishments) as controlling behaviour that backfires, is to create adult to adult examples that parallel a child's experience.

    It is inevitable that most adults cringe when faced with the scenario of the same behaviour they would bestow on a child, re-situated in their own life!

  3. @ Chris, thanks Chris...Indeed, I had to ask about awards ceremonies. I, as well as yourself, and others in our PLN, think and write a lot about it.

    @ Karen. I really like that suggestion. I have experienced such bribes before and, indeed, I did cringe.