Rewards or Punishment?

The concept and use of rewards has been misunderstood for centuries! It was given a scientific foundation by the research of B. F. Skinner's concepts of "Behaviorism" -- all learning results from reinforcement by repeated expected consequences -- operant conditioning. However, science builds models to be improved by refutation and modification. Skinnerian Behaviorism has been refuted, as has the flat earth model, and should only be used where it is good enough to be useful, and avoided elsewhere. We use a flat earth model when we look at a road map, but avoid it when we are discussing global positioning, atmospheric changes and weather forecasting.

Our society in general, and our educational system in particular, is misdirected by the misapplication of Behaviorism. Our management in the workplace is misled and fueled by the simplistic economic considerations of "efficiency" and "substitution of resources" that devalues both human capital and natural capital. The devaluation of human capital begins with each newborn human that is "taught" by rewards and punishments -- based on Behaviorism. The devaluation of natural capital continues with each purchase based on "price." Child rearing has had many experts and uncountable books have been written on this subject. The same holds for manuals about personnel management and textbooks about educational psychology! In contrast, one of the most reasonable discussions I have found is Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. However, following his recommendations is not easy. Both institutional structure and our personal experiences (conditioning, explained by Behaviorism) of how we have been treated force our initial responses to be counter to the most effective way to develop confidence and competence in ourselves and in those with whom we live and work. It remains our personal task to show how conditioning does not establish the limits of our ability to learn, but that we can become creative instead.

For me, in one part of my "former life" as a horse and dog trainer, I learned that "force" used to condition behavior through "respect" (fear) was often ineffective and always counterproductive for high quality results with intelligent animals. I had to learn the animal's "language" and communicate that way to achieve some degree of "mutual understanding" about the desired results. Then the "dumb" animal became much smarter, even creative. We could work together as a team. In my present life as a faculty member, the lesson remains the same.

Years later, I have seen demonstrations and read books by people that far surpassed what I had learned. Bud Williams is the best teacher that I know for working with ungulates (both wild - caribou and elk - and domesticated - cattle and sheep) and dogs, while the best teachers for horses follow Tom Dorrance's insights. An excellent example is Ray Hunt, who is an excellent horseman and student of Tom and brother Bill Dorrance. In technically different categories are the popularized versions. You may have heard about Tom Dorrance from a book and ultimately a movie, The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans. This fictional novel was inspired by Tom Dorrance and the principles he learned about horses. However, the character in the novel, played in the movie by Robert Redford, is vastly different from the persona of Tom Dorrance. Another popularized version of Tom Dorrance's insights was marketed internationally by Monty Roberts (The Man Who Listens to Horses). These profound human insights help animals learn our intentions and opens our awareness to their perspective. Teaching and learning I believe are the highest art with which humans are gifted. We begin to perfect the art with our self, and a few, such as Tom Dorrance and Alfie Kohn are especially gifted.

The fundamental issue is whether the motivations for our decisions are imposed on us (or other intelligent animals) or whether we find self fulfillment to motivate ourselves. Imposed motivation can be either from threat of unpleasant consequences, or fear of them, or from offers of pleasant consequences, or anticipation of them. We behave as desired as long as the threatened fear or promised pleasure continues. However, both fear and pleasure tend to decline with continual anticipation. The self-renewing motivation is to have rewards come from our own initiative.

Pleasure is a stronger than fear and creativeness brings confidence to extend our self by taking risks to learn new things. Finding the authentic "internal values" is not a trivial task. We become confused by "internalizing" imposed values, ranging from the way we were mis-parented and mis-educated to indoctrinated (as by modern advertising or other propaganda). However, when the authentic values each of us have are recognized, there is a qualitative distinction that we recognize and learn to distinguish fulfillment from conformity. For example, when we study to earn high grades, we are substituting a symbolic reward for an authentic one that leads to the self confidence that we can act effectively and feel pride in our accomplishments that we consider important. Self confidence and pride in a "job well done" from our personal criteria are based on our deepest values. Rather than being imposed, these values can be revealed from our own efforts and encouraged by others. They give us a since of freedom rather than a sense of confinement!

The Holistic Goal is a tool that helps us gain a better understanding of our selves, and thereby helps us create a situation where we produce the internal rewards that are consistent with our deeply held values. We can seek a supportive environment for this process, and we can be supportive of others on the same personal quest. This behavior is a feature of a creative, productive and healthy community.

Kohn outlines several features of typical rewards and why they fail. I highly recommend that everyone read his book, both for your personal benefit and for those who benefit from your understanding. As a "tickler" to catch your interest, consider the titles of some sections in three chapters of his book.

For "The Trouble with Carrots: Four Reasons Rewards Fail":

  • Rewards punish
  • Rewards rupture relationships
  • Rewards ignore reasons
  • Rewards discourage risk-taking 

and similarly in another chapter, "The Praise Problem":

  • "Good Work!" vs. Good Work
  • Hooked on praise
  • Encouraging words
  • The fear of spoiling

and some from another chapter, "Hooked on Learning: The Roots of Motivation in the Classroom":

  • The Straight-A Student: A cautionary tale
  • Learning as discovery
  • Collaboration: learning together
  • Content: Things worth knowing
  • Choice: Autonomy in the classroom

There are more as you will see as you read the book, and ponder your own learning experiences.


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Last modified 11/25/2008