In which I review ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn

My Growth Mindset research and development project has led me in some unexpected directions. Over the past few months my reading around the idea of intrinsic motivation has led me from Judith Butler’s research into formative feedback [1] via Daniel Pink’s work on motivation [2] and, most recently, to Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards. [3]

I don’t, per se, wholly identify with either traditional or progressive teaching, and I reserve the right to make a judgement call as to which combination of teaching methods is most appropriate on a class-by-class, lesson-by-lesson basis; however, my natural preference is probably more towards the traditional model, so it is fair to say that Kohn’s book caused me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.

Kohn makes five arguments against the use of extrinsic rewards:

  • Rewards can function as punishments if they are withdrawn, or if people fail to meet the criteria that will trigger their receiving the reward;
  • Rewards (and punishments) can undermine personal relationships;
  • Rewards (and punishments) only recognise observable outcomes, not the underlying processes that have led to those outcomes;
  • Rewards discourage risk-taking;
  • Rewards reduce intrinsic motivation.

Kohn doesn’t present any evidence of his own in support of these arguments; rather, his book is based on a synthesis of primary research undertaken by, among others, Butler and Carol Dweck (both of whom I have read in the original – see [1] and [4]), Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (of whose work I was aware as a consequence of its underpinning large parts of Pink’s Drive – see [2] and Mark Lepper (of whose work I was entirely unaware). As a result of this accumulated weight of evidence, Kohn’s arguments against the use of extrinsic motivators are, therefore, relatively uncontroversial. [5]

I use the phrase ‘relatively’ uncontroversial quite deliberately, because there are some very specific circumstances under which extrinsic motivators can work, including:

  • When used as a surprise, rather than being anticipated in an “If… then…” situation;
  • When the reward is similar to the reason for the reward, i.e. if a student’s reward for finishing a task is a more difficult extension task.

The reasons for my cognitive dissonance are how Kohn goes on to interpret this evidence. Firstly, he uses the evidence to make a wider argument against behaviourism which, for Kohn, ‘is by its very nature dehumanizing.’ [6] For Kohn, rewards and punishments are part of a system of operant conditioning in which people are reduced to a set of behaviours that can be reinforced or corrected until a specific stimulus achieves the desired response. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a humanist; as such, I have some sympathy for this line of reasoning. I also don’t have enough of a grounding in biology or psychology to be able to make a response that is based on anything other than first principles.

Secondly, Kohn uses the evidence to make a wider argument against traditional teaching:

‘It is all of a piece, really – the sort of curriculum that lends itself to being poured or stuffed into students’ heads, the fact that students themselves have very little to say about the process, the discipline required to keep them silent and separate, the view of learning as a transmission of information, and the view of children (and ultimately all organisms) as inert objects that must be motivated to learn from the outside with the use of reinforcements and threats.’ [7]

Instead, Kohn advocates a school environment in which all extrinsic motivators are removed and in which students have autonomy over their choice of what they learn, and when and with whom they learn it, so that intrinsic motivation can work its magic.

While I am aware that there is a weight of evidence in support of traditional teaching (Hattie’s effect size of 0.59 for direct instruction; the problems of managing cognitive load [8]), I am also aware – albeit to a lesser extent; make of that what you will – of evidence in favour of more progressive teaching (Hattie’s effect size 0.59 for co-operative learning compared to individualistic learning [9]). My discussion here is of Kohn’s interpretation of the evidence presented in his book, rather than of the evidence itself. Despite Kohn’s obvious use of a straw man, his interpretation of the evidence (in particular, his advocacy of greater autonomy) is valid; certainly Pink, drawing on much of the same evidence, also identifies autonomy as one of three three intrinsic motivators, along with mastery and purpose.

However, there are other, arguably more valid interpretations besides Kohn’s; ones that also draw on the evidence in support of traditional teaching. In particular, while Kohn attaches greater importance to autonomy in the learning process (in order to fit with his broader advocacy of discovery learning), his interpretation does not specifically address the issue of mastery; implicit in his argument that mastery emerges from autonomy. Meanwhile, I read his book through the lens of my research into Growth Mindset theory, which emphasises mastery above autonomy. As such, through the use of explicit modelling of learning objectives, with feedback linked to clear success criteria and not to target grades, and progress judged through criterion-referenced mastery tests, I would argue that is possible to reconcile the direct instruction model of teaching and a more intrinsically motivating learning process (albeit possibly by de-emphasising the role of autonomy as an intrinsic motivator). The question is, as Joe Kirby has asked, whether the three intrinsic motivators are of equal importance. [10]

I anticipate two directions to my research over the next couple of months. One is to investigate the work of Judy Cameron and W. David Pierce, whose work ostensibly provides evidence of the efficacy of extrinsic motivators. The other is to deepen my understanding of mastery learning, in order to investigate how autonomy and mastery might work alongside each other in a (theoretically) even more intrinsically motivating model of teaching.


[1] R. Butler (1988) ‘Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task Involving and Ego Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance’, in British Journal of Educational Psychology 58, 1-14; C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I consider the relationship between AfL and Growth Mindset, (post dated 20 July 2014; site accessed 31 October 2014)

[2] D. H. Pink (2011) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Edinburgh, Canongate); C. Phillips (2013) ‘In which I consider performance-related pay’, (post dated 1 October 2013; site accessed 31 October 2014); C. Phillips (2014) ‘In which I explain why Ofsted’s (alleged) policy on rewards and sanctions is wrong’, (post dated 5 October 2014; site accessed 31 October 2014)

[3] A. Kohn (1999) Punished By Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, And Other Bribes (New York, Houghton Mifflin)

[4] C. Dweck (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential [Kindle edition] (London, Constable & Robinson)

[5] Hence S. Coughlan (2014) ‘Lavish praise from teachers “does not help pupils”, (article dated 31 October 2014; site accessed 31 October 2014); R. Coe, C. Aloisi, S. Higgins and L. Elliot Major (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, (report dated October 2014; site accessed 31 October 2014)

[6] Kohn (1999) p.25

[7] Kohn (1999) p.213-214

[8] J. Hattie (2011) Visible Learning For Teachers: Maximising Impact On Learning (London, Routledge); D. T. Willingham (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For The Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey Bass). For my review of the latter, see also C. Phillips (2013) ‘In which I review “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel T. Willingham’, (post dated 31 January 2013; site accessed 1 November 2014)

[9] J. Hattie (2011) Visible Learning For Teachers: Maximising Impact On Learning (London, Routledge)

[10] J. Kirby (2014) ‘Why aren’t rewards working?’, (post dated 17 May 2014; site accessed 2 November 2014)


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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2 Responses to In which I review ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn

  1. Pingback: In which I review ‘Walden Two’ by B. F. Skinner | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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