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Customer Review

228 of 242 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Caused me to question rewards; still yearn for solutions, January 24, 2005
This review is from: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (Paperback)
I come at this book as an educator and as someone who has spent a lot of time grading students and helping them navigate the treacherous waters of the standardized testing game. This was on the bookshelf of the tutoring center where I work and I thought I'd see what this man's case was.

For the most part, I found this to be an intentional counterbalance to business as usual. It appears that there are a great many reviewers with the psychology background to assess how he may set up BF Skinner as a straw man to strike down. I'm not sure it's necessary to set up Skinner as a man to strike down. I do agree with Kohn, however, that "pop behaviorism" and incentive driven behaviors are pervasive in our culture. Incentive plans in business, grades at school, and rewards at home are commonly thought of strategies for management. Kohn consistently attacks the abuses and excesses of incentives and gives a coherent framework for what makes rewards wrong, focusing on how relationships are fragmented and creativity and attention are undermined. As a teacher who has seen grade obsessed students in tutoring and classroom situations, any book that provides philosophical and psychological research to advocate for intrinsic learning is welcomed.

Readers should be aware that this is a *very* radical book. Like other radicals, Kohn is probably better at ripping down the capitalist, or in this case incentive-based, order than in building something up to replace it with. Kohn wants us to reason with people and clearly communicate agreed upon objectives. Has Kohn ever tried to implement these strategies in a classroom of 35-40 urban students? I believe that he would argue we should have smaller class sizes that we could value intrinsic motivation, but I question whether he would be living in the real world at that point. There are some valuable bullet points in the final 80-100 pages of the book where he advocates for strategies. Maybe his other works go at that side. Fundamentally, though he asks us to get away from our American focus on ends such as profits, grades, and behavioral complicity from our children. That makes this book truly radical and I am still weighing in my own mind how convinced I am about the pragmatic value of this book.

I think this book is valuable reading about the dangers of using rewards without thought for the long-term consequences of those rewards. I caution readers from joining Kohn wholeheartedly for in many ways, he seems to me to be a counterconsultant rather than an established educator with unassailable results or a business leader who has built a business implementing his principles. Now that I think of it, I yearned for the long term narratives of success stories where I could interpret details. He does cite a lot of research studies in support of his views, but I am not enough of a psychologist to ascertain whether I am fully convinced of the value in embracing the risks inherent with embracing his views full force.

Stay tuned. I might edit this one and say this has been a paradigm altering book that leads me away from keeping test prep as part of my personal mission. As it stands, I consider this a book that has helped me by raising some unresolved questions in my mind.

4 stars.

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 4, 2010 2:43:30 PM PST
Thanks for the review - I think I might check it out. I did smile at the irony of you giving it a star rating though ;-)

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2010 11:50:01 PM PST
J-Rock says:
Glad you liked the review, and hope you'll drop by with a comment or an email to let me know what you think if you get a chance to read it.

Posted on Feb 14, 2013 7:35:44 PM PST
HK Jaye says:
Thanks for your comment...I thought I was losing my mind at first! LOL (truly laughing)

Posted on Nov 4, 2013 11:43:38 AM PST
Marc Colbeck says:
Great comment, very lucid. I read this book a while back and I seem to recall the author saying something to the effect of "I have no idea how to put this into practice, but I am convinced that what we are doing is counterproductive". I'm a university lecturer and have wondered how to implement this in the classroom. Having had a few years to digest the book I think the biggest help I've gotten from it is in my own personal life and learning. The book has taught me to be aware of when I'm 'chasing the carrot', and to gently let that superficial motivation go with a chuckle and a 'hey, I'm human' comment and get back to just having fun with life and not worrying so much about the outcome. I play music, I do martial arts ... I do stuff. In all that I do, it's been helpful to me to let go of grabbing for a reward.

Posted on Mar 15, 2014 11:50:22 AM PDT
The author clearly doesn't fully understand Behaviorism and focuses only on overt examples of tangible "rewards" or reinforcers. Everyone well versed in Behaviorism knows that reinforcers come in many forms. Learning to play a piece of music is rewarded by hearing the music produced. That is a reward (reinforcer) that occurs in the natural environment, it retains it's intrinsic value to the person producing the music, but it still operates within the laws of behaviorism in that it is in fact, simply a reward for engaging in the behaviors of learning and playing music. Completing an assignment in class for the "joy of learning" is it's own reward, but don't forget, it is still a reward for engaging in the behavior of "learning". If you learned a piece of music that you absolutely detested, you would most likely not play that piece of music again because the product of your behavior was not reinforcing (rewarded). You could be enticed to play that piece of music that you detest again if someone offered you a reinforcer (reward) that you valued more than your dislike of the music. But again this is all consistent with the laws of behaviorism. I suggest anyone who is not familiar with Behaviorism should check it out. There is a huge and growing body of empirical research that show the principles of behaviorism are as valid as our ideas about gravity, and ABA interventions are reliable and highly effective when applied. Skinner and behaviorism are popular targets, but with an educated eye you can easily see the folly in such attacks.

Posted on May 10, 2014 1:00:06 AM PDT
I'm curious how this book has affected you since reading it - being a parent I'm very interested in learning more about this concept but it doesn't take a whole book to warn myself of the dangers of using rewards all the time with my children. Do you recommend this book for a parent who wants practical strategies and useful alternatives to rewards? Does it say there's an acceptable amount of rewards that's ok to use or does it say never?

In reply to an earlier post on May 10, 2014 2:05:17 AM PDT
Marc Colbeck says:
From what I recall he doesn't offer much advice at all about how to do better. He pretty much DID take a whole book to warn of the dangers of using rewards. However, it's important to remember that this wasn't such a popular idea when he wrote the book, so he went into a great deal of detail to make his case.

In reply to an earlier post on May 10, 2014 9:23:54 AM PDT
J-Rock says:
Frankly, it's been so long since I've read this book that I can't really comment on whether I would recommend it for practical strategies or not. The book emphasizes using research to combat Skinner's Theory of Behaviorism at its roots from what I remember.

This book remains an enormous influence on me, however. I am someone that wants to build critical thinkers who choose to educate themselves because they want to learn. This book provides the research and philosophical underpinnings for many of my philosophies about grades and fuels my desire to oppose many of the so-called innovations in education. Many of these so-called innovations are just applying the punishment and reward strategies that we use on lab rats to students. Students aren't lab rats. They are spiritual beings who have free will and desire to make choices. I feel that if we inform parents, children, and community stakeholders about how education helps them and focus on serving their desires and goals we won't need rewards.

In some cases, however, I do believe rewards are necessary. For impoverished students, paying them for grades may be beneficial. But even if this case, I believe that they aren't being rewarded but so much. In the case of impoverished students, "the reward" of money or recognition is really fulfillment of a need and that probably comes lower on Maslow's hierarchy of needs than the rewards that the author of "Punished by Rewards" is talking about.

In reply to an earlier post on May 10, 2014 9:24:45 AM PDT
J-Rock says:
I agree with Marc Colbeck. I also appreciate you adding the historical context the book took place in.

In reply to an earlier post on May 10, 2014 9:30:06 AM PDT
J-Rock says:
I aggressively disagree with you Rachel B Ashton. I don't think that the author is railing against "learning to play a piece of music is rewarded by hearing the music produced". I think the author wants people to play a music for its intrinisic value, which is what you are talking about.

The author is trying to make a distinction between such simple rewards as paying a student to get good grades and having a child play a piece of music because she enjoys hearing the music produced. Can you make that distinction? I am very concerned by the scholarship of researchers such as Roland Fryer at Harvard University. He wanted to pay DC students for getting good grades. Their parents, a few of whom may be familiar with the ideas in this book, justifiably revolted.

I encourage you to actually cite or allude to the "huge and growing body of empirical research that shows the principles of behaviorism are as valid as our ideas about gravity."

You sound like an educator, or rather a Miseducator, and I would welcome the opportunity to debate you on the ideas in this book. Simply appealing to authority is not going to get you but so far in this thread.
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